India found it wrenching last week to vote against neighboring Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Three years ago, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a bloody 26-year long civil war against the Tamil Tigers, New Delhi backed him. It still considers Colombo a friend, so it's with hesitation that it supported a U.S.-backed resolution demanding Sri Lankan accountability for alleged war crimes committed in the dying stages of the war. This marks a sharp break from the traditional Indian practice of not singling out individual countries for censure.
But rather than view the vote as an aberration, it ought to be seen as a harbinger of the future. Over time, the rise of an authoritarian China, the harsh realities of India's neighborhood, and the logic of its domestic politics should nudge New Delhi to shed its historic bashfulness about standing up for democratic norms outside its borders. This gradual transformation from a wallflower to a cheerleader for democracy is in India's self interest. And it will benefit the rest of Asia too.
India won't abandon old reflexes overnight. Scarred by its experience as a former colony, it has long privileged state sovereignty over democracy and human rights. It also fears, somewhat exaggeratedly, that its own internal security problems—separatist movements in the northeast and Kashmir, and a Maoist rebellion in central and eastern India—don't allow it the luxury of pointing fingers at others. A quest to lock down oil and gas resources overseas, especially before China gets to them, also ensure that New Delhi's foreign policy mostly reflects hard-headed commercial and security interests.
Barring energy security, India's fraught debate over the Sri Lanka resolution in Geneva brought each of these arguments to the fore. Only when the government's principal Tamil ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (Dravidian Progress Federation), or DMK, threatened to withdraw from the ruling coalition did India abandon its natural inclination to keep faith with Colombo.
This decision, brought about by DMK pressure, has some Indian policy pundits carping that India placed petty domestic politics over Asian solidarity and its national interest. But that's a myopic view. For one thing, India's federal democracy has to respond to regional parties, which in turn respond to popular opinion. New Delhi can't wish away the fact that 60 million Indian Tamils have a stake in seeing their brethren treated as equal citizens by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.
This is a benefit in the long run. If India's democratic workings lead it to support democracy and human rights abroad, it will win the support of other societies that value fair elections and individual rights. These countries are much more likely to admire India's achievements and empathize with its challenges than those with an authoritarian bent.
Fostering a democratic order in Asia matters because India's most pressing challenges in its neighborhood come from authoritarianism. China's best friends in the region include Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa regime and the Pakistani army. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, radical Islamists—often backed by like-minded military officers—threaten their own societies and regional stability. In each of these countries, as in Afghanistan, India has a vital stake in democracy taking root.
China's growing footprint in South Asia also ought to nudge India toward rethinking old shibboleths. Despite partially successful efforts to build roads in Afghanistan, houses in Sri Lanka's Tamil areas and a transport corridor linking Northeast India to Myanmar, India can't realistically hope to match China at its own game. New Delhi has neither Beijing's deep pockets nor its expertise at building grand projects such as Hambantota port in Sri Lanka or dotting Burma with ports and power plants.
It makes sense to focus instead on India's strengths by doing what China can't. New Delhi ought to encourage more journalists, artists, writers, judges and politicians from the region to engage with their Indian counterparts. Building the infrastructure of a free society is a more lasting contribution than building physical infrastructure, and every bit as challenging.
Finally, India's foreign policy elites must adapt to changing political realities at home. The decline of national parties, and the rise of regional political outfits such as Tamil Nadu's DMK and Bengal's Trinamool Congress, will force New Delhi to take regional sentiments into account. Over time, internal democracy and federalism anyway show India in good light—and despite possible hiccups in the short term, over time they ensure that neighboring regimes must treat their citizens fairly to earn goodwill in New Delhi.
Anticipating this changing pattern does not mean India should abandon its more traditional security and commercial concerns. Nor is it a call to adventurous behavior like using its army to impose democracy—though intervening to prevent last month's coup in the Maldives ought to have been an option on the table. And at times, as when it looked like democracy's prospects were hopeless in Burma, India may be forced to hold its nose and work with an undemocratic regime.
But these situations should be the exception rather than the norm. Foreign policy making will always involve balancing different considerations. It's in India's interest to tilt the balance toward democracy.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01