The election victory India’s Congress party coalition should create an opportunity for Pakistan to improve its ties with its larger neighbour, strained after last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Pakistani analysts and senior officials said on Saturday.

Amid expectations of a victory by the Congress-led coalition, Pakistani leaders were preparing on Saturday to send formal congratulatory messages to India’s newly elected leaders.

However, Lieutenant General (retired) Hamid Nawaz Khan, Pakistan’s former defence secretary said; “This outcome of Indian elections must be seen as a continuation of India’s policies. We know what we will be dealing with rather than the unknown and that helps Pakistan to know what it can expect.”

In recent months, Indian leaders have taken a hawkish line against Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai attacks and subsequent revelations over the involvement of Pakistan-based militants.

Still, Mr Khan said, many Pakistanis were likely to see the Congress as “less hawkish” than the Bharatiya Janta Party or BJP, the main political opposition “as the view in our country is that BJP takes a much harder line on Pakistan.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Ghazala Minallah, a leading civil society campaigner, who said the election results create an opportunity for India and Pakistan to resume a political dialogue which practically collapsed after the Mumbai attacks. “For the ruling structures of both India and Pakistan, this victory by the Congress Party presents no surprises, no new beginnings, so it is a good opportunity to continue building up a relationship” she said.

On the streets, opinion among ordinary Pakistanis was mixed. “Every time there has been a big war between India and Pakistan, the Congress party has always been in power. Whether its Congress or someone else, we can’t trust the Indians,” said Saleh Usman, a retired Army sergeant, who served in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

But Anwar Malik, a college student, who is a fan of some of India’s best known singers who are popular in Pakistan said: “the wars are all past history. What we need now is to work towards peace. If Congress party will deliver peace, why not.”

However, western diplomats in Islamabad said it was premature to predict the state of relations after the new government takes charge in Delhi. “The last six months after the Mumbai attacks have broadly vitiated the Indo-Pak atmosphere. Taking a step back from that will take time and a lot of hard work from both sides” said one.

On Saturday, Pakistan was once again reminded of the fast-growing insecurity across the country when at least 11 people were killed in a terrorist car bomb in the northern city of Peshawar. Pakistani officials said they were investigating the possibility of Taliban militants staging the attack in retaliation for the country’s ongoing military operations in the northern Swat valley.

In the past, Pakistani officials have accused India of encouraging unrest on its soil by supplying arms to militants who are fighting its own security officers. This followed frequent Indian allegations against Pakistan for its alleged role in arming separatist Muslim militants fighting for independence in the mountainous state of Kashmir-parts of which are between Indian and Pakistani control.

The two countries have fought three wars and many skirmishes, mainly over Kashmir. “It is this kind of a bad history which can simply destroy prospects for future reconciliation” warned the diplomat.

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