NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s strengthened mandate after India’s general election frees his hand to better manage ties with Pakistan that have deteriorated since last year’s Mumbai attacks.
While there may not be any major peace moves, Singh could make a limited opening to Pakistan now he no longer needs to worry about a weakened Hindu nationalist opposition criticising him as being soft on India’s nuclear rival.
These include dropping a travel advisory and reviving people-to people contacts that have been severely affected since the Mumbai attacks of November.
Singh will likely stop short of relaunching peace talks suspended since the raids, first focusing on bringing more international pressure on Islamabad to clamp down on militants.
New Delhi may wait and see the outcome of the army’s offensive in the Taliban bastion of Swat, eager to see whether it shows Pakistan is serious about cracking down on Islamist militants.
“The real issue is who is the credible interlocutor in Pakistan,” an Indian diplomat said, adding India was still unclear whether President Asif Ali Zardari or army chief General Ashfaq Kayani was calling the shots.
“The Pakistani issue is not in our hands in the sense it depends on how internal developments pan out,” he said.
Singh has previously ruled out holding talks unless Pakistan takes more action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants which India blames for the Mumbai attacks.
The prime minister may consider a calibrated easing of tensions with small gestures such as lifting the travel advisory announced in December. The travel advisory was largely symbolic because few Indians travel to Pakistan but still has the effect of affecting flights and discouraging trade.
“Seeking creative ways of resuming the dialogue process while maintaining bilateral and international pressure on Islamabad on terrorism will likely be one of the first priorities of the new foreign policy team,” Siddharth Varadarajan, deputy editor at The Hindu, wrote in an article.
The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had accused Singh of being soft on terrorism following the Mumbai attacks and had also traditionally taken a hard line on Pakistan.
An alliance led by the BJP won only 159 parliamentary seats in the general election while Singh’s Congress-led coalition won 262, only 10 short of a majority and the biggest mandate for any Indian government in nearly two decades.
“He really is in a position to leave an imprint, he is not hobbled any more and at every step,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, an independent New Delhi thinktank.
He said India would watch to see how far Pakistan presses its crackdown on militants in Swat this month.
“Let Pakistan figure this out for itself. They have shown resolve to fight the Taliban, if they stay the path and if this yields dividends, there will be some peace moves from the Indian side,” said Mehta.
India and Pakistan launched peace talks in 2004 on all issues that divide them including over the future of Kashmir, the Himalayan region at the heart of a half a century of hostility.
Mehta said Singh and then President Pervez Musharraf reached a framework agreement in 2007 to advance peace talks, but it stalled because Musharraf became embroiled in domestic political problems which eventually forced him to quit last year.
Pakistan has repeatedly urged resumption of the dialogue between the two countries, a call Washington is expected to support as soon as the new government takes office
“We do hope that as soon as the new government is formed we will see some positive development,” said Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit. “We hope that the dialogue process, which was discontinued, will be resumed,” he said.
A stable government in New Delhi was good for the region, former Pakistani foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan said, with a chance to make a difference.
However, analysts said India was very unlikely to drop its guard and would keep its troops on the border to ensure there was no infiltration from Pakistan into Kashmir and the rest of India.
“India is not going to do anything premature,” said Mehta.
Additional reporting by Robert Birsel