With 86 “yeas” to 13 “nays”, the US Senate endorsed a landmark 123 nuclear agreement between the United States and India on Wednesday, thus removing the final legislative hurdle to resuming civilian nuclear trade between the two countries. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to go to India later this week to sign the agreement with her Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee.
India provoked outrage worldwide in 1998 when it conducted nuclear tests -- critics of the 123 Agreement fear it will now be able to conduct atomic weapons tests with impunity
For the first time in over 30 years, American businesses will now be able to sell nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to nuclear-armed India.
In return, India will allow UN inspections of some of its civilian nuclear facilities. In 1974, the South Asian nation provoked the world’s ire when it tested an underground nuclear weapon.
US President Bush welcomed the Senate’s decision and said he “looked forward to signing the bill into law”.
The Republican senator Richard Lugar was also jubilant about the decision: “This is an opportunity for the United States and India to come together in a way that is historically important for the world.”
A victory achieved at lightning speed
In India, leaders from the ruling United Progressive Alliance also hailed the deal saying it was “a victory for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government”.
Abishek Manu Singhvi, the spokesman for the Congress Party, marvelled at the “lightning speed” through which India had “passed through all the tests -- through the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], the House of Representatives and Senate. Ultimately, it’s a tribute and a compliment to India’s standing in the world.”
India’s “standing in the world” was also complimented when, earlier this week, Singh signed a similar landmark civilian nuclear deal with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whilst on a state visit to France.
France is the second producer of nuclear energy in the world after the United States. These deals with the US and France will bring India a long way further to meeting its soaring energy needs, say observers.
Coming back to India from his trips to the US and Europe earlier this week, Prime Minister Singh explained how important the civilian nuclear deal was: “It protects all the essential interests of our country, it protects our strategic programme, it opens up new options, while India manages its energy situation and it’s a part of our quest for policies which will widen our development options.”
“Surrender to US imperialism”
But in India, leaders of the opposition are not so sure about this. Their reaction on Thursday was that the government had surrendered to “US imperialism” and that the agreement violated India’s “sovereignty and nuclear independence”.
In the US, critics feared that the deal would allow India to resume atomic weapons testing with impunity, making it a de facto nuclear state without having signed the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“This is virtually an invitation to India to resume nuclear testing secure in the knowledge that a resumption of testing would not nullify this new nuclear trade agreement. I believe this to be a grave mistake,” said Democrat Senator Tom Harkin.
India says it has a sovereign right to conduct nuclear weapons tests. This is a claim which has always worried neighbouring rival Pakistan, which wants a similar deal with the US.
On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Islamabad would make efforts to develop civilian nuclear technology and that the US would have to “accommodate” these efforts.