MADRAS — The Indian-American nuclear deal signed in New Delhi in March seems to be foundering. The pact, which would give India access to American civil nuclear technology, must be approved by the U.S. Congress before it can become law.

Although the accord — signed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President George W. Bush — was opposed by many people, including some political parties and experts in India, two months ago it seemed set to sail smoothly through Congress.

The hitch in the deal was India’s ongoing nuclear-weapons program and New Delhi’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Advocates of a world free of nuclear weapons question whether such a country should enjoy the benefits of America’s civil nuclear technology.

Washington’s pact with New Delhi has inherent contradictions: Here is a nation that went to war with Iraq on a vague suspicion that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Here is also a nation that has been trying to stop, with threats, North Korea and Iran from going nuclear.

Admittedly, India is a responsible democracy that cannot be placed in the same political category as North Korea, Iraq, Iran and even Pakistan. This is Bush’s belief and he used this argument to try to push the Indian-American nuclear agreement through Congress.

But North Korea’s recent nuclear test may derail or delay the Indian-American nuclear deal. The North Korean test will certainly bring into sharp focus the deterrence theory, and the looming possibility of further nuclear proliferation.

There are fears that Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan may be tempted to join the nuclear club. And if Iran builds a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey may follow suit. After all, Pakistan went nuclear immediately after India exploded its own nuclear bomb.

Eager to see its pact with Washington pass through the U.S. Congress, New Delhi is now attempting to project itself as a responsible entity. One way of doing so is by turning the spotlight on Pakistan and its reported role in helping North Korea develop nuclear weapons. After talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Singh recently said, “I wish to state the . . . erosion of the nonproliferation regime is not in our interests, we do not support the emergence of another nuclear-weapons state. The North Korea test highlights the danger of clandestine proliferation. In fact, India’s own security has suffered due to clandestine proliferation linkages.”

Yet, a marked nervousness can be felt in India’s corridors of power about the nation being clumped together with countries such as Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson in New Delhi said the other day that “We have to stress the fact that there is a distinction between India and the rest — Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.”

The world knows this distinction, but the North Korean test can make a lot of people — even those sympathetic to India’s cause — uneasy.

The timing of the North Korean blast was particularly bad for India. It suffered a major setback recently when the U.S. Senate recessed without voting on a bill that would have given Bush the powers to enable the pact to be implemented.

This law would recognize India as a nuclear-weapons state and permit civilian nuclear commerce with it, even though New Delhi has not signed the NPT and has become a nuclear-weapons state in violation of NPT principles.

“All this is bad news for the deal,” said M. V. Ramana, an independent nuclear-affairs expert based at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development in Bangalore. “But it’s not terrible news. There is still a good chance that the Senate resolution will eventually go through. But there is now a higher probability that more and more conditions will be imposed that will limit the degree of cooperation permitted under the deal or demand special assurances from India, which are not reciprocally sought from the U.S.”

If the pact cannot be approved by the present Congress, it will have to go through a trying process before it can be taken up by the new Congress that convenes in January 2007.

It is then quite likely that the accord will differ significantly from the one that Singh and Bush signed early this year.

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