"Indian democracy is grown up to engage with real political issues than religion," Meira Kumar told a large gathering at the prestigious Cambridge University in England Thursday.
"I firmly believe that any communal approach or activity is not beneficial for our secular fabric. Like everywhere else, in India too, development and welfare issues are important and therefore are discussed openly on stage in public meetings."
General elections will be held in India next year and the ruling Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance is facing a tough race against right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Indian parliament with 543 elected members represents 1.2 billion people, one fifth of humanity.
The speaker, daughter of late Babu Jagjivan Ram, former deputy prime minister and India's most decorated Dalit leader, condemned the caste-based vote bank politics and said "the system needs to be destroyed".
"I have heard some friends argue that consolidation along caste lines during elections leads to empowerment of Dalits," the speaker said.
"They get an opportunity to assert themselves. Consequently, some may reach decision-making positions and in turn benefit other Dalits. I beg to differ. This is a mirage," she added.
Accroding to Kumar, the caste system has caused and is continuing to cause unimaginable harm to the society.
"It needs to be destroyed completely and not encouraged to tighten its grip on our electoral system. What has been poison for so long cannot suddenly become nectar of life," she said.
The august audience, which included Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz, applauded the Speaker's comment on India's religious harmony.
"The cliche is that India is a land of religious tolerance. No, I disagree," Kumar, a former member of India's diplomatic service, said.
"Tolerance is a negative word. It implies that we merely endure and suffer one another. It suggests an uneasy co-existence. India is far, far more than that," she said, adding, "we respect each other, admire and appreciate our diversity".
"We engage and celebrate each others' religious practices. Otherwise, in my husband's village Jagdishpur in Bihar, the Hindu community would not take part in the Tazia procession during Muharram. Or, the Muslim scroll painters of West Bengal would not paint icons of gods and goddesses. There are thousands of such examples," Kumar stated.
The visiting Indian leader, who holds one of the toughest jobs in a democratic institution, said Indian democracy was going through a transition phase of coalitions and in the very near future it would attain a new stage when regional politicians would start giving priorities to national issues.
"The decline of one-party dominance has given way to a multi-party system, representing a wide range of India's diversity," the speaker said.
"It has brought a perceptible change in the representativeness of the parliament as well as the state legislatures. Since 1989, our political system has accepted the inevitability of coalitions. It has evolved its own mechanism of consensus as a way to govern."
Mmeira Kumar said critics believed that smaller parties often wielded an influence disproportionate to their support base and that regional issues, at times, took precedence over national interests.
"However, this is a transitional phase, a part of the churning process. Given the maturity of our representative polity, it is highly unlikely that parochial concerns will be allowed to override the national priorities," she said.
At present, the Election Commission of India recognises six national parties, 44 state parties and has registered 1,415 unrecognised parties.
Virandar Paul, Acting High Commissioner of India to Britain, hosted a reception to honour the speaker and her delegation. They were in London after attending the 129th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva.
(Anasudhin Azeez can be contacted at email@example.com)
--IANS (Posted on 11-10-2013)