While some things were new, the rhetoric remained largely unchanged at the inauguration of the 14th SAARC summit on Tuesday.
Afghanistan joined and participated as a member of the regional forum, the first expansion since SAARC's inception in 1985. Also, observers were included in summit proceedings, from China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and the European Union.
What remained the same was the formality, the strict adherence to protocol, the well-intentioned but very dry rhetoric and the need to score points off each other, that has been the bane of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation which, in 22 years, has yet to see a project take off.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives was the one man on the dais who has been a fixture at all SAARC summits since the first in Dhaka in 1985. Today, there were three leading economists on the dais at Vigyan Bhavan, the venue of the formal ceremonies.
All three of them have worked abroad, and are now at the helm of the three largest countries in the region; India's Manmohan Singh, Pakistan's Shaukat Aziz and Fakhruddin Ahmed, the Chief Adviser of Bangladesh. But none of them address each other by their first names, as is the norm in effective groups like the European Union or the G-8 or even ASEAN.
Singh, in his inaugural address, tried to unilaterally announce measures that would infuse some action into SAARC. As an immediate step, he said, "India is announcing a unilateral liberalization of visas, for students, teachers, professors, journalists and patients from SAARC."
Significantly, he also announced zero-duty access to India before the end of the year to the least developed countries of South Asia and offered to "further reduce the sensitive list in respect to these countries." LDCs in SAARC are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and new entrant Afghanistan."
Taking the theme of connectivity forward, Singh proposed links between the capitals of SAARC countries through direct flights, as he urged SAARC "to be an efficient instrument implementing what we member states seek."
While Aziz laid out a roadmap and spoke of the need for "a paradigm shift in our thinking and attitudes," it was Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse, however, who went directly to the core of the problem that has left the forum wanting.
"While endorsing and fully subscribing to the values of SAARC, we badly need to be action-oriented rather than dependent on rhetoric," said Rajapakse, who was attending a SAARC summit for the first time since he became President.
"Merely saying good things about each other and ignoring the reality will take us nowhere. All what we have endorsed over the years, must, without any further delay, be transformed into action."