ndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence Friday 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.

For Modi, who is seeking reelection in polls expected this spring, the confrontation with Pakistan over the militant groups within its borders is a rare political opportunity. Last month, it appeared India’s elections would be fought on terrain unfavorable to Modi, with issues like youth unemployment and rural distress near the top of the agenda.

Now the focus has shifted to an arena where Modi has the upper hand: national security. After 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed in a suicide bombing Feb. 14 in Kashmir — the deadliest militant attack in three decades of insurgency — Modi vowed to respond. 

Modi’s remarks, delivered at an election rally in Tamil Nadu, marked his first direct comments on days of tit-for-tat airstrikes that raised fears that 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. Late Friday afternoon, the Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was returned home to a hero’s welcome.

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