NEW DELHI : Was it a knowing omission—no mention of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in President Ram Nath Kovind’s speech to both Houses of Parliament on Thursday though there was a reference to India’s “Neighbourhood First" policy?

It now seems clear that India’s “neighbourhood first" policy, which accords primacy to nations in India’s periphery, includes in its ambit the Bimstec—a grouping that includes almost all countries of South Asia and some in South-East Asia.

“My government’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is an evidence of our approach of according priority to South Asia and countries in the adjoining region," Kovind said in his speech. “India will play a crucial role in the progress of this region. Accordingly, trade, connectivity and people-to-people contact are being encouraged. The presence of heads of states and heads of governments of Bimstec countries, Kyrgyzstan—the current chair of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation—as well as Mauritius during the swearing-in of the new government is a reflection of this policy," Kovind said.

The reference was to the invitation to leaders from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan constituting the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation—Bimstec—to Modi’s swearing-in on 30 May. Besides the leaders, Modi also invited the president of Kyrgyzstan and the prime minister of Mauritius, indicating that India’s extended neighbourhood i.e. Central Asia and the Indian Ocean region would be a policy priority.

The implication seems to be that India is looking to chart new vistas of cooperation leaving aside troublesome neighbour Pakistan. In his first speech after taking office, foreign minister S. Jaishankar said Saarc had “certain problems" while Bimstec had “energy" and “possibility"—a reference to Pakistan blocking efforts at regional integration and trade besides fomenting terrorism against India.

In his speech, Kovind referred to a “new" India that was “rapidly moving towards occupying its rightful place in the world community."

“Today, India has acquired a new image and our relations with other countries have become stronger," Kovind said. Evidence of India’s growing international stature can be seen in support for New Delhi’s position on issues such as climate change, economic and cybercrime, action against corruption and black money and energy security."

“Today, the whole world stands with India on the issue of terrorism. Designation of Masood Azhar, responsible for dastardly terrorist attacks on our soil, as a global terrorist by United Nations, is a major testimony to this fact," Kovind said in a reference to the UN branding Azhar a terrorist on 1 May.

Noting that “new" India would be “sensitive and also, economically prosperous" Kovind said that for this, national security was key. “India has amply demonstrated both her intent and capabilities" in defeating terrorism," the President said referring to the surgical strikes in 2016 after a terrorist attack in Uri and then through air strikes at terrorist hideouts in Pakistan’s Balakot region after the 14 February Pulwama attack. “In future too, all possible steps will be taken to ensure our security," he said.

While the government was fast-tracking the purchase of critical military hardware like the French-built Rafale fighter aircraft and American-made Apache helicopters, the government was also putting emphasis on the manufacture of modern armaments in India under the flagship “Make in India" programme, he said. “The policy of indigenously manufacturing weapons such as modern rifles and cannons, tanks and combat aircraft is being carried forward successfully," he said.

India would also be working to harness the opportunities presented by space, Kovind said pointing to its uses in preventing disasters as much as “strengthening our security at land, air and water." The President referred to an anti-satellite missile test in March and noted that “the role of technology in the field of security is expanding continuously."

“Keeping this in view, work is in progress to establish three joint service agencies for space, cyber and special forces. These collaborative efforts will strengthen the security of the country," he added.

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