When Mongolia turned up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's itinerary for his Asian trip, sandwiched between China and South Korea, a lot of people were confused. Why Mongolia? India has had cultural ties with the primarily Buddhist  country – even if for most Indians that just means having Changezi chicken on their menus – but it's still a bit of an odd choice.

One theory, however, was that it is Modi's way of adding a qualifier to his Chinese bromance. After three days in China, including visiting the hometown of President Xi Jinping, a visit to Ulaanbaatar would be an opportunity to demonstrate India's own power in Beijing's backyard. Additionally he would also get to tout a connection between the two nations that New Delhi doesn't share with Beijing: democracy.

On Sunday, delivering a fine speech to Mongolia's Parliament, that's exactly what Modi ended up doing. Speaking of the Buddhist connection between India and Mongolia, Modi spoke about the Buddha's eight-fold path, not just as a spiritual guide but also as organising principles for nations.
"The eight-fold path of Lord Buddha prescribes not just the path to happiness of individuals, but also a guide to the well being of societies and nations. It is a call for each of us, as individuals and as nations, to assume the universal responsibility to mankind and our planet. It inspires us to think of common good of all nations. The teachings of Lord Buddha are reflected in the principles of democracy."

He went on to explain how the path of righteousness that the Buddha preached also lays down the foundations for democracy. "Its essence is the freedom of human beings, faith in dialogue, rule of law, and resolution of differences through peaceful means," Modi said. "So, if we follow the Right Path of the master, it will also be natural to walk on the path of democratic values. Here, in Mongolia, we see the union of these two ideals."

Some of this can be seen as directly addressing Mongolia – a nation that only recently emerged out of the communism of the Soviet Union to embrace democracy. Considering the democratic track records of other Asian nations that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, Ulaanbaatar's achievements are significant. But Modi went on to make it clear that he wasn't just speaking to the Mongolians.

Modi's expressly addressed the next portion of his speech to "Asia".
"I say this to Asia:

Whatever forms of government each nation chooses, however we define ourselves as a State, we can still apply the principles of democracy in our engagement with each other.

Whatever path we have chosen, whatever be the history of our disputes, or the nature of our claims, we are linked by the common spiritual heritage across a vast arc of Asia.

The convergence of Buddhism and democracy provides us a path to build an Asia of peace and cooperation, harmony and equality."

That statement is a little awkward. How can countries that choose not define themselves as democracies "apply the principles of democracy" in their engagement with each other? Careful watchers of diplomacy, particularly across the border in Beijing will certainly be keen to see how this is read by those paying attention, but, awkwardness aside, it is still a reference to democracy that didn't come up at all in Modi's time in China. Which is not to suggest that it should have: India has always refrained from directly commenting on the internal matters of other nations, and held the position that the same should apply to itself.

Modi reportedly also told Chinese students at Tsinghua University that democracy is one of India's key advantages, although the official transcript from his speech there doesn't carry the remarks, which might mean it was off-hand.

In Mongolia, he went on to talk about the young, dynamism of Asia that is also living on the "uneasy edge of uncertainty, of unsettled questions, of unresolved disputes and unforgotten memories". Speaking again about the path of righteousness being the idea that can take Asia forward, Modi spoke of the joint example that Indians and Mongolians were setting the region and the world.