BOMBAY - The United States yesterday overturned a three-decade ban on the trade of atomic fuel and technology with India, providing President Bush with what may prove his most significant foreign policy victory while in office.
Analysts say the landmark move underscores Washington's ambitions to champion India as an Asian counterweight to China. India has argued that access to nuclear power is essential to fuel its economic rise.
President Bush said the legislation "will strengthen our global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, protect the environment, create jobs and assist India in meeting its growing energy needs in a responsible manner."
However, critics have condemned Mr Bush's unprecedented willingness to supply India with civilian nuclear technology despite the country's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India tested nuclear weapons as recently as 1998 and has refused to rule out doing so again.
The Washington-based Arms Control Association recently called the decision to allow India into the nuclear club "a non-proliferation disaster of historic proportions that will produce harm for decades to come."
Shrugging off those concerns, the US Senate voted 86-13 to allow India to buy civilian atomic technology, including nuclear fuel and reactors, from American companies.
Mr Bush's administration had already played a key role in ending India's status as an international nuclear pariah by pushing the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) to drop its ban on trade with the country last month.
The NSG, a group of 45 nations that legally supply nuclear fuel and technology, was created after India shocked the world by testing its first atomic device in 1974. It had prevented Delhi from importing the nuclear material it says it needs to help to meet rocketing domestic energy demand.
In India, the governing Congress party spokesman Veerappa Moily said: "The nuclear deal is a monumental achievement. It's a victory of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government."
Mr Singh had risked a collapse of his government in pushing through the nuclear deal, which his opponents have claimed will make India a geopolitical vassal of the US.
India's nuclear power requirements are expected to be worth as much as pounds 17 billion over the next 15 years. Most observers expect Russia and France, which this week signed a nuclear trade pact with India, to be the main beneficiaries.
However, several big US arms companies lobbied hard in Washington in favour for the nuclear deal. They hope that closer ties between the countries will help American companies in massive upcoming tenders to supply India with fighter plane and other military equipment.
The Senate's move came just ahead of an expected trip to India this weekend by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.