NEW DELHI — It started with a private phone call by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on Friday morning to wish him a happy birthday.
About four hours later, Mr. Modi landed in the Pakistani city of Lahore for an impromptu visit with Mr. Sharif, giving such little notice that Mr. 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 almost 12 years. The tense relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, have long worried American policy makers, who fear that proxy wars between the two countries could flare into a real one. Mr. Modi is also highlighting India’s role in Afghanistan, including providing military assistance, which risks angering Pakistani leaders.
But with his flash of spontaneous personal diplomacy on Friday, Mr. Modi appeared to send a strong public message that the ambiguous course he has taken toward Pakistan has shifted to embrace engagement, not confrontation. It is a message that his administration has hinted at in recent weeks, seeking to sketch out a road map for talks with Pakistan on terrorism and trade.
Timeline | A Diplomatic Dance Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, relations between India and Pakistan have remained frosty despite efforts to improve them.
Mr. Modi had sent mixed signals about Pakistan. He surprised many by inviting Mr. Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony 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.
“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.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 his plans to visit Mr. Sharif in Pakistan was when Mr. 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.”
Mr. Modi soon arrived at Mr. Sharif’s private residence outside Lahore, meeting the Pakistani leader’s family at an estate decked out with decorations for the wedding of Mr. Sharif’s granddaughter. The two leaders 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Malik said, may also have seen an opportunity for “a positive headline.”
“He realizes he needs to be seen as engaging, and he is under pressure from the West and the Saudis to engage,” Mr. 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.”
In an interview last week, T.C.A. Raghavan, the departing Indian high commissioner in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said that relations between the two countries were at “a tipping point.”
For his part, Mr. Sharif has been an advocate of better ties with India, and he has been eager to enhance trade ties with it. 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 Mr. 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 talking with Geo, a private television news network.
Other analysts urged a more cautious view.
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Adil Najam, the dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, said in an interview that 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,” Mr. 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 went for an international conference in January 2004 and met with President Pervez Musharraf. In 1999, Mr. Vajpayee made a historic bilateral visit, riding from New Delhi to Lahore on the inaugural run of a new bus route between the countries.
In India, a leader of the opposition Indian National Congress, criticized the visit as “unannounced, unprecedented,” and unstatesmanlike.
“In the last 67-odd years, no prime minister has landed in another country in this manner,” said Anand Sharma, a senior Congress leader, asking whether Mr. Modi could claim any progress on dismantling Pakistan-based terrorist groups or punishing the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
“What are the assurances the prime minister is bringing back?” he added. “Has this process been unequivocally endorsed by the real establishment and force in Pakistan, the I.S.I. and the Pakistani Army?” The I.S.I., or Inter-Services Intelligence, is Pakistan’s powerful military spy agency, which is accused of sponsoring militant groups against India in Kashmir.
Although there appeared to be widespread support and enthusiasm in Pakistan for Mr. Modi’s visit, some observers also expressed skepticism, saying the Indian leader has a knack for playing to the news media.
“Modi was being seen as unreasonable and unnecessarily hard-line by the international community and Indian liberals due to the recent actions of his allies in supporting sectarian tensions within India,” said Moeed Pirzada, a talk show host and political analyst based in Islamabad.
“After doing a $7 billion arms deal with Putin and engaging the Afghan leadership, promising support for the Afghan spy agency, this dash to Pakistan provides a softening of his hard image,” Mr. Pirzada said, referring to a recent weapons agreement between India and Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and to remarks Mr. Modi made in Afghanistan.
An earlier version of this article misstated the last time an Indian prime minister visited Pakistan. It was in 2004, not 1999.
Ellen Barry reported from New Delhi, and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan. Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
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