Either Narendra Modi is completely clueless about how countries negotiate territorial disputes, which is worrying because he has prime ministerial ambitions and India has bigger boundary problems than Sir Creek; or, equally worryingly, he was being deliberately misleading about the facts in a cynical vote-catching attempt, with no thought to the larger consequences. In a letter to Manmohan Singh, made public before it even reached the addressee, the Gujarat Chief Minister accused the Prime Minister of planning to “hand over” Sir Creek to Pakistan. In subsequent explanations about the timing of the letter, Mr. Modi said he believed the handing-over was to happen during the visit of Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik. First, the no-brainer: the Interior Ministry does not handle territorial issues with India; even assuming the “handover” of Sir Creek to Pakistan was a done deal, it would have hardly been kept a secret in that country, and someone far above Mr. Malik’s pay-grade would have arrived to do the handshaking in New Delhi.
The facts about that 99-km estuary in the Rann of Kutch are these: Pakistan claims the entire width of the creek, right up to its eastern coast, while India says the boundary must be drawn down its middle; it was one of the subjects in the India-Pakistan composite dialogue that resumed under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership in 2004. Six rounds of talks have taken place, the two sides have conducted a joint survey of the creek and exchanged maps showing their respective positions. Despite the conviction that the two countries are tantalisingly close to resolving the issue, there is no agreement yet. Scheduled talks in December 2008 did not take place because of the post-Mumbai attacks freeze on dialogue. The momentum towards resolution, under pressure of a May 2009 deadline by the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea for signatories to claim maritime rights over territorial waters, contiguous zones, EEZs and the continental shelf, evaporated. Since last year, the two sides have made attempts to pick up the threads of the negotiations. What is truly puzzling about Mr. Modi’s fantastic claims on the disposal of Sir Creek is that such ploys are more typically associated with losing candidates, whereas he is supposed to be poised at the edge of one more victory. That anomaly aside, what his allegations have done is to poison the ground for a breakthrough. It is hardly a secret that the resolution of any territorial dispute requires give and take; this is true for Sir Creek too. Mr. Modi’s posturing and the UPA’s response have politicised the issue, making such compromise even more difficult than it is now, not just for India, but Pakistan too.