NEW DELHI (WASHINGTON POST) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on Friday (March 1) on the most dangerous clash between India and Pakistan in decades, saying he had begun a new era where India "will no longer be helpless in the face of terror", and casting his critics as foes of the nation.
Mr Modi's remarks, delivered at an election rally in Tamil Nadu, marked his first direct comments on days of tit-for-tat air strikes that raised fears the two nuclear-armed neighbors were stumbling into a broader war.
The tensions ratcheted down considerably on Thursday after Pakistan said it would return an Indian fighter pilot it had captured a day earlier in an aerial dogfight, the first between the two countries since 1971.
The pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was set to return home to a hero's welcome late on Friday afternoon.
For Mr Modi, who is seeking re-election in polls due later this spring, the confrontation with Pakistan over the militant groups within its borders is a rare political opportunity. Earlier this month, it appeared that India's elections would be fought on terrain not entirely favourable to Mr Modi, with issues like youth unemployment and rural distress near the top of the agenda.
Now the focus has shifted to an arena where Mr Modi has the upper hand: national security. After 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed in a suicide bombing on Feb 14 - the deadliest militant attack in three decades of insurgency in Kashmir - Mr Modi vowed to respond.
His response came on Tuesday, when India launched air strikes on what it said was a training camp run by Jaish-e-Muhammad, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the Feb 14 attack. India said the strike "eliminated" large numbers of militants, but has provided no proof.
Satellite imagery of the site has undermined India's claims that it hit its intended target and caused serious casualties.
At the rally on Friday, Mr Modi said that criticising the Indian government's handling of the strike was tantamount to aiding its arch-rival Pakistan.
"The world is supporting India's fight against terror but a few parties suspect our fight against terror," the Prime Minister said. "(Such) statements are helping Pakistan and harming India... I want to ask them: Do you support our armed forces or suspect them?"
India's armed forces have been more measured in their assessment of Tuesday's strike than government officials. There was "fairly credible" evidence that showed damage to a Jaish-e-Muhammad training camp, Air Vice-Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor told reporters on Thursday, adding that it would be "premature" to discuss the number of casualties.
"We have got the effect that we desire."
Regardless of the precise impact of the strike, Indian voters are likely to agree: The fact that India used air power for the first time since 1971 within Pakistan - rather than just inside the disputed region of Kashmir - represents a satisfying escalation for those long frustrated by Pakistan's lack of action against militant groups inside its borders.
"Look how Modi has taught them a lesson," said Mr Shivam Jha, 19, a student at Delhi University, expressing a common sentiment here. Mr Jha will be voting for the first time in the next elections and said that Mr Modi had his vote.
"I am sure he is going to win."
India's air strike within Pakistan on Tuesday was met with broad approval across the political spectrum. But the mood began to shift after Pakistan conducted a retaliatory strike on Wednesday in Indian-controlled Kashmir and an Indian fighter jet was shot down in the ensuing confrontation.
Mr Modi's opponents slammed him for continuing with campaign-related activities in the middle of the crisis and for saying nothing about Mr Varthaman, the captured pilot.
Still, amid the euphoria around Mr Varthaman's release, it is unclear whether such criticism will stick. Mr Modi has "reinforced his image as somebody who is not going to compromise as far as national security issues are concerned," said Mr Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer.
"It puts the entire opposition on the defensive. Now, criticising his handling of the crisis would be presented (by his party) as being anti-India."