NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India took another stride onto the world stage this week when U.S. President
George Bush recognised it as a responsible nuclear state and promised cooperation with its civilian atomic power programme.
The deal has been greeted with euphoria, but some of it has already begun to cool. Energy experts say the gains will take decades to materialise and will not answer India's immediate and fast-growing energy needs.
And although the visit has been called the highest point ever for India-U.S. relations, political analysts here have warned New Delhi not to be drawn too closely into Washington's orbit, and stressed the need to balance ties with China.
"A historic breakthrough" and "a paradigm shift" in India's relationship with the United States, Indian newspapers wrote of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington and the nuclear agreement reached on Monday.
At a stroke, the deal removed much of the stigma India attracted after conducting nuclear weapons tests in 1998, and will catalyse an atomic energy industry hampered by sanctions since those tests.
But there were political hurdles ahead, commentators said. The deal could be scuppered by opposition from the U.S. Congress, from other nuclear powers, or even from countries which gave up their own nuclear ambitions to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"A grand bargain," the Economic Times wrote in an editorial on Thursday. "But cross the hurdles before cheering."
Bush has promised to lobby his own Congress as well as his foreign allies, to amend American laws and international agreements which bar nuclear cooperation with India because it has not signed the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty.
In return, India has promised to separate its civilian and military nuclear programmes, continue a moratorium on nuclear testing and place its civilian nuclear facilities under U.N. inspection.
Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose government conducted the controversial 1998 nuclear tests, says his successor has given away too much.
"Separating the civilian and the military would be very difficult, if not impossible," he said in a statement. "The costs involved will also be prohibitive."
Vajpayee's former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra worries that fissile material from civilian reactors could no longer be used to produce weapons - a concession, he says, which should not be surrendered unilaterally, but only as part of a global agreement among all nuclear powers.
"We are in effect putting a cap on our own nuclear (weapons) capability," he told Reuters.
BALANCING TIES WITH CHINA
Analysts at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) are more enthusiastic. Bush's words, says Uday Bhaskar, have conferred new respectability on a country whose image was tarnished by those nuclear tests.
"There was always a sense of disapproval, that India had bucked the system," he said. "You would even hear the term 'pariah state'. The symbolism of this is very important."
India, short of domestic uranium to fuel its nuclear plants, now hopes the U.S. will resume supplies to two reactors it helped build for India at Tarapur near Bombay in 1969.
If not, Monday's deal should at least allow India to access fuel -- as well as technological cooperation -- from countries like France or Russia, says Bhaskar's colleague and former nuclear scientist R.R. Subramanium.
"This will ease American objections," he said. "And once America leads change, other countries will fall behind."
It will also give India something less concrete but potentially even more significant - more global clout.
Bhaskar says India and the United States, the world's two largest democracries, are on the verge of meaningful engagement for the first time in history.
The United States may be wooing India as a counterweight to China, and Manmohan Singh's Communist coalition allies may complain of a sell-out, but Bhaskar says New Delhi will be wary of being sucked too far into Washington's orbit or into an anti-China axis.
Instead, it will need to find what he called "strategic equipoise", balancing relations with both China and America.