Narendra Modi of India made his impromptu stop Friday, the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade.
NEW DELHI — It started with a private phone call by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on Friday morning to wish him a happy birthday.
About four hours later, Modi landed in Lahore, Pakistan, for an impromptu visit with Sharif, giving such little notice that Sharif’s national-security adviser could not make the journey from Islamabad in time.
It was the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian premier in more than a decade. The tense relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, have long worried U.S. policymakers, who fear that proxy wars between the two could flare into a real one. Modi is also highlighting India’s role in Afghanistan, including providing military assistance, which risks angering Pakistani leaders.
Modi has sent mixed signals about Pakistan. He surprised many by inviting Sharif to his swearing-in as prime minister last year, but three months later abruptly halted that tentative engagement by canceling high-level talks over Pakistani diplomats’ meeting with separatist leaders from Kashmir.
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In recent weeks, however, India has appeared to change course, sketching out a road map for talks on terrorism and trade.
“In a way, he is sending a signal to everyone that there will be no more U-turns,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor at The Wire, an Indian news site. “He is putting his personal political brand on this process. He can’t walk away that easily now.”
Modi’s day began in Afghanistan, where he helped inaugurate the new Afghan Parliament building, built over eight years with the help of about $90 million from India. He also delivered three Mi-25 attack helicopters and 500 new scholarships for “the children of the martyrs of Afghan security forces,” making a point of acknowledging Pakistan’s concerns about the Indian presence in Afghanistan.
“There are some who did not want us to be here. There were those who saw sinister designs in our presence here,” Modi said. “But, we are here because you have faith in us. You know that India is here to contribute, not to compete; to lay the foundations of future, not light the flame of conflict; to rebuild lives, not destroy a nation.”
The first that outsiders — including his own Indian constituency — heard of Modi’s plans to visit Sharif in Pakistan was when Modi made a show of casually mentioning it on his Twitter account: “Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi.”
Modi soon arrived at Sharif’s private residence outside Lahore, meeting the leader’s family at an estate decked out with decorations for the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter. The two met for almost an hour, aides said, speaking pleasantly and pledging to restart talks between the two nations.
Among the factors that may have prompted Modi to reach out is that Pakistan has a new national-security adviser, said Ashok Malik, a New Delhi-based political analyst. The Indian leader may also have seen an opportunity for “a positive headline” after a series of domestic setbacks.
“He realizes he needs to be seen as engaging, and he is under pressure from the West and the Saudis to engage,” Malik said. “What came across in the past year was this very combative guy, snarling at his opponents. This has allowed him to appear serious and statesmanlike.”
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir, the Himalayan region that both countries claim.
Sharif has been an advocate of better ties with India and eager to enhance trade. But his desires have been viewed with suspicion and disapproval by the powerful Pakistani military establishment, which remains focused on the resolution of the longtime dispute over Kashmir and accuses India of fostering separatists in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
Most of the Pakistani political opposition welcomed Modi’s visit, expressing hope that it would bring momentum for better relations.
“Today is a good day for Pakistan and India,” said Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, while speaking on Geo, a private television-news network.
Other analysts urged a more cautious view. Adil Najam, the dean of the Frederick Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, said there was a danger of overanalyzing the visit.
“I think it’s actually a good step. But that is what it is, a step, a very small step. There is a danger of reading too much into that,” Najam said, adding that false expectations eventually “become a recipe for future heartbreak.”
The last time an Indian prime minister visited Pakistan was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee came for an international conference in 2004 and met with President Pervez Musharraf. In 1999, Vajpayee made a historic bilateral visit, riding from New Delhi to Lahore on the inaugural run of a new bus route between the countries.