New Delhi, India -- Affection for things American can be felt regarding many things in this country, from sneakers to accents, to where the elite send their children for university education.
And yet deepening relations between New Delhi and Washington, symbolized by a landmark nuclear accord whose details were made public earlier this month, have stirred such fierce political anxiety here that it now stands as the biggest challenge for the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The government's Communist allies, as well as the opposition, the conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, have seized on the deal to assail the government for cultivating broader strategic and economic ties with the US.
Singh's United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, which is led by the Congress Party, depends on the support of four leftist parties for a majority in Parliament. The discord among them has reached such a pitch that the capital has been rife with speculation about the prospect of early elections, before the administration's term ends in spring 2009.
Parliament does not have to approve the nuclear deal, but screeching protests against the accord have debilitated the legislature for the last 10 days. At the heart of the complaints is that it could restrict India's ability to test nuclear weapons and endanger its foreign policy independence.
"The Left parties have been watching with disquiet the way the UPA government has gone about forging close strategic and military ties with the US," Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote this week in People's Democracy, the party organ. His party warned the government not to go forward with the deal.
Whether his bluster, or that of Singh, who has dared the Communists to withdraw support, will result in any serious breakdown of government remains to be seen.
But the rift has exposed a deeper and perhaps inevitable divide between the Congress and its leftist supporters. Until now, the differences over economic and foreign policy have slowed down several programs but have not posed such a stark confrontation.
"It's a very serious cleavage on the architecture of the India-US strategic relationship and the specifics of the India-U.S. nuclear deal," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst.
Singh last week defended the accord in Parliament as one that would give energy-starved India access to nuclear fuel and technology. India has not been able to buy nuclear technology from the US or anywhere else for 30 years, since India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, tested a nuclear device. India must still get approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
It was not clear how many of Singh's opponents heard him in Parliament. They heckled him throughout the speech.
Even the Hindu nationalist BJP, which has been traditionally pro-American and which negotiated a nascent alliance with the Bush administration in early 2004, says the nuclear deal sacrifices national sovereignty.
"A strategic partnership is not a synonym for strategic subservience, and that's why we are opposed to it," Jaswant Singh, the foreign minister in the last BJP administration and now a member of Parliament, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
He went on to criticize the prime minister's attempt to "hustle it through" without the blessings of Parliament.
"It's now inscribed in stone and not a comma can be changed," he said. "If you can't change anything, what can Parliament do -- wash dishes?"
The hullabaloo here contrasts sharply with the criticism that President Bush has faced at home from members of Congress, who accuse him of yielding too much to Indian demands, particularly on its right to test atomic weapons. Such a broad exception, critics say, stands to weaken international nonproliferation norms.
The Indian government, and supporters of the deal more broadly, contend that Indians ought not to fret about U.S. domination. "The engagement with America is already complete," said Sunil Bharti Mittal, whose company, Bharti Enterprises, has entered into a partnership that allows Wal-Mart into the Indian market. "Wal-Mart is here. Indian companies are making acquisitions there."
Mittal, who is also president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said the nuclear accord would be a touchstone of far broader cooperation between the countries in everything from pharmaceuticals to agriculture. "If America and India are really seen as allies, as great partners in progress, you will see trade multiply," he said.
Beyond the talk of shared values, good will for Americans, their culture, even their government prevails among many Indians. Indians make up the largest number of foreign students in the US, and they get the largest number of work visas to the US, according to the US Embassy here. Last year, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 56% of Indians surveyed had a favourable view of the US, second only to Japan.
Prem Shankar Jha, a magazine columnist who has written in favour of the nuclear deal, said part of the good will came because, "by the grace of God, we never became your allies in past, we never got a chance to be let down."
Yet mixed feelings remain. Jha has also written against the Bush administration's policies elsewhere, which are not altogether popular in India. "Any country with that much military power and that does not subscribe to international norms is bound to inspire wariness," he added, hinting at the paradox of Indian sentiment toward the US.