By Seema Sirohi
The critics of the deal say India will gain little by embracing Washington
The Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, signed by President Bush after being approved by the US Congress, ends India's nuclear isolation and recognises the world's largest democracy as the de facto sixth nuclear power.
It is a historic breakthrough for India, which struggled against sanctions and denials of high technology as a nuclear pariah for more than three decades because it refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and developed a weapons programme.
India won the recognition largely on its own terms and against strong opposition from the advocates of non-proliferation who saw the agreement as a blow to the NPT.
Under the deal, Delhi can keep its nuclear weapons and also buy nuclear fuel and technology for its civilian energy needs.
India got to have its cake and eat it too because the world recognised its huge energy needs, its growing strategic eminence in Asia and its clean non-proliferation record.
The fact that nuclear energy is increasingly seen as a cleaner alternative also helped convince some countries whose approval was needed to get the deal past the 45 nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which regulates nuclear commerce.
But in the end the personal commitment of the US President George Bush, who pushed critics both at home and abroad to accept the agreement, was crucial.
The passage of the deal represents a rare foreign policy victory for President Bush whose other adventures abroad have been less than successful.
In India he will be remembered for daring to go against 34 years of established US policy and for transforming India-US relations as a result.
The deal gives India access to US civilian nuclear technology
The US president spent major political capital convincing recalcitrant senators on Capitol Hill and other sceptical government of the importance of the nuclear deal with India.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too went against the ingrained anti-Americanism of the Indian intelligentsia to push the nuclear agreement, putting the survival of his coalition government on the line.
While American non-proliferation hardliners condemn the deal, saying President Bush gave away the store and set a bad example, Indian critics claim India gained little for embracing the United States.
Clearly, both cannot be right. What is clear is that the old rules have been changed for the sake of one country and that in itself is pregnant with enormous geopolitical importance.
The fact that both China and Pakistan - India's traditional rivals - opposed the deal means there is something India is getting that they are not.
The nuclear agreement will bring India and the United States even closer as the once estranged democracies become more engaged on common interests in Asia and the world.
The deal represents a major paradigm shift for both countries and fits neatly into their respective strategic visions.
By helping India gain more strategic space, Washington is trying to ensure an Asia not dominated by any single country, mainly China.
India, by coming closer to Washington, increases its options in an increasingly inter-dependent world.
Not surprisingly, China was unhappy about the Indo-US nuclear deal and commentaries in official media questioned the wisdom of breaking international rules for a single country as the agreement was negotiated and cleared various hoops over the past three years.
PM Manmohan Singh has campaigned strongly for the deal
China's unhappiness came to the fore when the US won a waiver for India from the strict rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
It took a very strong letter from President Bush to the Chinese President Hu Jintao to end the delaying tactics of Chinese diplomats at the NSG last month, officials said.
The NSG waiver on 6 September was the most important international breakthrough because it opened many doors to India.
Ironically, the NSG was created in response to India's first nuclear test in 1974 and strengthened over the years to curb technology from spreading.
India can now buy nuclear technology from all major suppliers such as France, Britain and Russia, not just the US.
Last week, the first fruits were already visible when Prime Minister Singh signed an agreement with France during a visit to Paris.
An agreement for more reactors from Russia is expected later this year.
India plans to build 18 to 20 nuclear reactors at an estimated cost of $30bn.
Ashley J Tellis, one of the architects of the deal, described the opening of the entire international nuclear market to Delhi as President Bush's most magnificent bequest to India.
This is important in light of what Indian critics and officials maintain are areas of concern in the nuclear deal as approved by the US Congress.
Some say the deal with encourage proliferation
Senators and Congressmen inserted riders and conditions limiting the scope of the deal as envisaged by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh.
The bill calls for termination of the agreement in case India conducts a nuclear test in the future.
It also says the US should prevail upon other countries to do the same.
Guaranteed fuel supplies for reactors the US builds for India are also in question.
US officials stress that Congressional demands are a statement of preference and that they are not binding.
The only document that India should worry about is the bilateral 123 agreement, which spells out the terms of nuclear cooperation between the two countries.
The signing of the agreement by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, due to take place on Friday in Washington, will end three long years of negotiations and many difficult moments.