NEW DELHI, India – President Bush scored a victory Thursday on his first trip to India, a landmark nuclear energy agreement that he says could ease U.S. energy prices.
Bush acknowledged it will be difficult to persuade Congress to support the agreement, in which the United States would share its nuclear know-how and fuel with India. But he said he's confident Congress will approve the deal so India can power its fast-growing economy without expanding the world demand for oil.
Critics in Congress say the United States is making an exception for India, which has nuclear weapons but won't sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"Proliferation is certainly a concern and a part of our discussions, and we've got a good-faith gesture by the Indian government that I'll be able to take to the Congress," Bush said.
"But the other thing that our Congress has got to understand is that it's in our economic interests that India have a civilian nuclear power industry to help take the pressure off the global demand for energy," the president said. "To the extent that we can reduce demand for fossil fuels, it will help the American consumer."
The agreement between the world's oldest and largest democracies was a political coup, too, for Singh. "We made history," he said, standing alongside Bush in a sunwashed courtyard.
The two announced new bilateral cooperation on an array of issues from investment to trade, health to the environment, agriculture to technology, and even mangoes. "Mr. Prime Minister, the United States is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes," Bush said of a provision that will bring the country's beloved fruit to the U.S. for the first time in nearly two decades.
But the civilian nuclear agreement is the major building block of renewed relations between the United States and India, which is seeking greater recognition on the world stage.
Critics say the United States is using India as a counterweight to China's growing economic and political influence. And they argue that the agreement sends the wrong signal to leaders of North Korea and Iran, who have thumbed their noses at international monitoring of their weapons programs.
Bush disagreed. "What this agreement says is things change, times change — that leadership can make a difference," he said.
"I'm trying to think differently, and not stay stuck in the past."
The agreement marks a major shift in policy for the United States, which imposed temporary sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear weapons tests. India insists that it has been a good steward of nuclear material for decades; that there has never been one incident of proliferation from it.
Singh's leftist allies criticized the pact, saying it paves the way for U.S. meddling in Indian affairs. "Today is one of the most shameful days in the history of independent India," said Shambhu Shrivastava, spokesman for the socialist Samata Party.
Bush and Singh signed an agreement in July, but it hinged partly on determining how to segregate India's nuclear weapons work from its civilian nuclear program. A senior administration official said India classified 14 of its 22 reactors as civilian, which would open them to international inspection; eight were deemed military reactors, making them exempt from inspection.
The late night negotiations for the nuclear pact, coupled with protests planned throughout Bush's stay, reflected India's mixed feelings about the visit by the leader of the United States — a country seen as a loyal friend by some and a global bully by others.
Many business and government leaders are eager to strengthen ties with the United States.
But for a second day Thursday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in New Delhi to protest Bush's visit. Dozens of politicians, mainly from leftist parties, stood on the steps of the country's national parliament building chanting "Bush go back!" and "Down with Bush!"
"We're saying this because he is the biggest killer of humanity in the 21st century. He has killed in Afghanistan, he has killed Iraqis and now he is bent on killing Iranians," said Hannan Mollah, a lawmaker from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). "The Indian government should not get into any deal with the Americans. Bush has laid a trap for India."
Bush said he was mourning the loss of life in a bombing Thursday that ripped through the parking lot of the Marriott Hotel in Karachi and broke windows in the nearby U.S. consulate. At least four people died, including a U.S. foreign service officer. The attack occurred hundreds of miles from Islamabad, where Bush was headed later this week.
"Terrorists and killers are not going to prevent me from going to Pakistan," Bush said.
And Bush repeated his position that reforms at the United Nations are needed before the U.S. will consider whether it would back India's desire to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
The president and his wife, Laura, visited a memorial to India's independence leader, M.K. Gandhi, standing in stocking feet for a moment of silence and wreath-laying at the site where he was cremated in 1948. Following tradition, the Bushes tossed rose petals on the cremation platform — repeating the gesture several times at the request of an Indian photographer who didn't get the first shot.