The recent nuclear energy accord signed by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington has been warmly welcomed in India. Not only is the deal seen as enabling India to meet its growing energy needs, but also as a major political achievement.

The Bush administration's decision to resume sales of civilian nuclear technology to India - if approved by Congress - will allow India to buy nuclear fuel and reactor components to expand its nuclear energy program.

For more than 30 years, India has been barred from access to international civilian nuclear technology because it has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and has conducted nuclear weapons tests. As a result, less than three percent of India's energy needs are met by nuclear power.

Energy analyst Rajendra Srivastav says India desperately needs new energy sources to fuel one of the world's fastest growing economies. "International supplies were not made available so it could not go in for large capacity nuclear power stations through import like other countries could do. Therefore the component of nuclear power has remained low. Now that the doors are open, it is possible for this country to increase the capacity addition at a rapid pace," he said.

But for political observers, the nuclear deal's significance lies in redefining India's image in the global community, which has long disapproved of New Delhi's nuclear activities.

The Director of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, Uday Bhaskar, says the deal recognizes India as a responsible nuclear power, entitled to the benefits accorded to those who have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

He says the agreement represents a dramatic turnaround from 1998, when India's nuclear tests earned widespread international condemnation. "Untill now the sense was India is outside the system. It has been seen as a challenger; it has been seen as a power that has remained defiant and outside of the fold, and very negative connotations have been assigned to India in the past... My sense is that there would be a shift in the perception about India," he said.

In his address to Congress, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasized that India intends to stringently uphold non-proliferation rules.

"India is fully conscious of the immense responsibilities that come with the possession of advanced technologies, both civilian and strategic," Mr. Singh said.

The agreement is also seen as a major step towards cementing U.S.-India ties. The two countries have moved closer in recent years, but Washington's ban on the sale of nuclear technology to India has remained a source of irritation in New Delhi.

Mr. Bhaskar says the agreement could recast India-U.S. relations. "The main sticking point between India and the United States was the manner in which both sides perceived the nuclear issue. I would interpret the July 18 statement as a very innovative way of squaring the circle, whereby the United States is able to maintain the sanctity of the various protocols it has created over the last 30-35 years, and simultaneously recognize the de-facto reality of India as a very distinctive nuclear power ... and the need to accommodate India," he said.

In return for access to civilian nuclear technology, India has agreed to separate its military and civilian nuclear programs, place its civilian reactors under international safeguards and continue a moratorium on nuclear testing.

The deal has invited some criticism at home, mainly from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which says India has agreed to too many nuclear controls in return for the technology.

But most foreign policy and energy experts say the accord has surpassed their expectations - and are hoping it is not blocked by Congress.