India and the US on Friday sealed an "unprecedented" nuclear deal as New Delhi said it was bound only by the "agreed text" of the 123 Agreement, reversing 34 years of nuclear isolation of the fast-growing Asian power through culmination of a tortuous process initiated in 2005.
External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed the bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation agreement at an impressive ceremony held at the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department.
"Both India and the US Administration have now completed all our internal procedures to be able to sign this path breaking agreement," Mukherjee said after signing the agreement, paving the way for entry of American companies into the Indian nuclear market after over three decades.
Noting that the agreement reflects a "careful balance of rights and obligations", he said "its provisions are now legally binding on both sides once the agreement enters into force."
This comment assumes significance since the US had said the contents of the 123 Agreement were a political commitment and not legally binding, triggering concerns in India over aspects like promises on nuclear fuel assurances.
Describing the 123 Agreement as "unprecedented", Rice said it demonstrated the vast potential partnership between India and the United States.
"The world's largest democracy and the world's oldest democracy joined together by our shared values and increasingly by many shared interests now stand as equals closer together than ever before," she said.
After putting the final seal on the agreement with the US, Mukherjee told reporters that India was bound only by the "agreed text" of the 123 Agreement.
"We are bound by the agreed text of the 123 Agreement which is negotiated by the negotiators of the two countries. And it is on the basis of Joint statement issued by President (George W) Bush and Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) on 18th July 2005 and also by the Joint Statement of March 2006," Mukherjee told a press conference.
"It is not merely a question of the interpretation. It is the question of the agreed text on which we are depending," the External Affairs Minister said winding up his short visit to Washington.
When asked whether he was rejecting Congressional intent in the resolution of approval by insisting that India was bound only the text of the 123 Agreement, he said "I am aware of the procedure followed by US Congress in the legislation. Every country has its own process of legislation as we have."
"We are bound by the agreement negotiated between the two sovereign countries and in this case, it is the 123 Agreement," he said, hoping that India will be soon completing procedures on the issue of liabilities.
On fuel supply assurances, the minister maintained that the text of the 123 Agreement and the Presidential Statement took care of the matter.
"The text of the agreement, if you go through, has entrusted responsibilities and obligations on both sides. In my observation I have pointed out that there is a balance between the obligation and the rights which we comply with.
"The text of the 123 Agreement provides the fuel supply assurance to India and it has been reiterated by the President's signing Statement," Mukherjee said.
Earlier at the signing ceremony, he said "today is an important day for India-US relations, for global energy security and for our common endeavour to promote sustainable development while addressing environmental challenges."
Mukherjee said the importance of the agreement is that it was the first step to civil nuclear cooperation and trade between India and the US. "It is also the first step to India's cooperation with the rest of the world in civil nuclear energy."
He said the signing of the agreement has brought to fruition three years of "extraordinary effort" by both India and the US and it was "one more visible sign of the transformed relationship and partnership" that the two countries are building.
"We now look forward to working with US companies on the commercial steps that will follow to implement this landmark agreement," he said.
By reinforcing and increasing the nuclear element in the country's energy mix, which is vital to sustain India's growth rate, nuclear power will directly boost industrial growth, rural development and help expand every vital sector of the country's economy, he said.
"It enables India to respond with her global partners to the challenges of climate change and global warming by strengthening her own economic growth and sustainable development," he said.
Praising Bush, Rice and the American Congress besides the Indian-American community for making the agreement a reality, the Minister said New Delhi looks forward to working with Washington in other fields as well, including combating terrorism, containing and fighting pandemics, climate change, ensuring food security, cooperating in disaster relief operations and other regional and global initiatives.
In her remarks, Rice said the the nuclear deal is not just nuclear cooperation. "Today we look to the future, a shared future. Let us use the partnership to fight against terrorism, to try a new socialist agenda for the 21st century."