George Bush launched a "historic" charm offensive in New Delhi yesterday, lauding India as a "grand democracy" and US partner in a bid to reach out to its people over the heads of tens of thousands of protesters. Standing on the manicured lawns of Hyderabad House, once a symbol of British power in India, the American president and the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh clapped hands and exchanged hugs after concluding a much-heralded nuclear deal and outlining a series of trade pacts.
"History was made today," Mr Singh said. "Our discussion today makes me confident that there are no limits to the Indo-US partnerships."
Earlier Mr Bush and his wife Laura, on their first trip to India, tossed flower petals at the site of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation, a traditional gesture of solidarity with India.
Mr Bush's three-day visit has been compared to Richard Nixon's rapprochement with China in 1973, a move that ushers India on to the world stage as a major power and develops its nascent partnership with the United States.
The nuclear pact marks a breakthrough for New Delhi, long treated as a nuclear outcast by the world, which will allow India to buy atomic technology and fuel to meet its soaring energy needs - provided the US Congress gives its approval. It is expected to allow trade between India and other nuclear powers if the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal group of 40 nations that controls global nuclear transactions, also lifts sanctions. India last exploded a bomb in 1998, a move that was widely criticised. Yesterday's deal in effect accepts India as a nuclear power.
Analysts said the deal survived only because of Mr Bush's personal interest in pushing it forward. "He overrode many of the ideologues - who see this as rewarding nuclear proliferation - in his own administration to push this forward. We owe him gratitude," said K Subrahmanyam, a government adviser.
Mr Bush argued that it was in America's economic interest to aid India's nuclear programme. He said increasing demand from America, India and China was pushing up oil prices. "To the extent that we can reduce demand for fossil fuels, it will help the American consumer."
This argument did not impress his Indian critics. Thousands of Communists and Socialist party activists marched through the capital, many wearing red caps and waving red flags. "Beat up Bush with slippers," some shouted, while others held placards that said "Imperialist, barbarian Bush go back" and "Alert, deadly Bushfire has arrived in India".
There was some concern that American legislators would tear apart the carefully constructed deal, under which India would place two-thirds of its reactors under the international inspections regime. There is concern on Capitol Hill that the pact will encourage other nations to acquire nuclear weapons in the hope of eventual American recognition.
Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, said on Indian television that once Congress considered the "strategic context of Indo-US relations" the deal would pass. Pointing out that the pact puts New Delhi on an equal footing with Beijing, "no one would want to let China have nuclear dominance over India".
China reacted cautiously to the news, wary of accepting any parity with its smaller southern neighbour. Beijing urged India to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and dismantle its nuclear weapons.
The US delegation also dismissed suggestions that Pakistan would seek a similar deal with the US. "It is a unique deal for India," said Nicholas Burns, a state department official. "Despite our friendship for Pakistan, there have been proliferation problems of a quite serious nature over the last several years that would make this kind of deal impossible."
Explainer: Atomic ambitions
India's nuclear programme has been virtually isolated for years, thanks to global sanctions imposed after the country detonated a "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974. Despite this it is reckoned to be technologically advanced and has produced enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear warheads.
It is estimated that India has 20 nuclear bombs that could be dropped by its air force. The remainder could be fitted to its home-built Agni and Prithvi missiles, which currently have a range of up to 1,250 miles. Pakistan, by contrast, has between 25 and 50 missiles, 20 of which could be dropped by fighter aircraft.
India has 15 nuclear power plants in operation, with a generating capacity of 3,310 megawatts (MW). Seven more plants with a capacity of 3,420MW are scheduled for completion by 2009. Though the country has uranium deposits, they have not been mined in great quantities, leading to a shortage.
Of the 22 reactors, four are already subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scrutiny. Another four will be placed under its watch. America has also promised to provide fuel to reactors open for inspection "in perpetuity".
The IAEA has welcomed the deal, and some experts say it will limit greenhouse gas emissions by assuring a carbon-free energy source for India's surging economy.
India's nuclear programme is nothing if not ambitious. It has introduced novel technologies such as fast breeder reactors, which use spent fuel from existing heavy water reactors to process plutonium, and thorium, a radioactive element abundant in India (it has 40% of the world's supply).
Using a combination of these, it is theoretically possible to create an unlimited supply of nuclear fuel. That remains a distant dream.