Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to a top military man give a lecture at the Oxbridge Society in Islamabad. It was the retired Lt. General Asad Durrani who spoke about various issues facing Pakistan and the region under the title ‘Pakistan – a Hard Nut’. It was insightful and pleasant. I had not expected a military man to pay as much attention to ordinary people as Durrani did.

He said that ordinary people, yes, those who would not bother with lectures like his, were the backbones and bearers of the country. The less they think of government issues, the better, he suggested, and he made reference to a book by an American academic writer who had spoken about ‘weak states, but strong people’. Whether the first part of reference quite applies to Pakistan, I am not sure. I think that the Pakistani state is strong too, at least its civil service, but probably not yet its political culture. There is a need for more grassroots participation, with local government council, labour unions, and all kinds of interest groups and membership organizations. As everything else, things must grow from within and below. Neither the military nor the business mindset in the country helps develop democracy.

And then, back to Durrani’s point, that his ordinary brothers and sisters in the land are so strong and decent. I hope he didn’t only think of men, but also women. And since he spoke just a day before the International Women’s Day, a European ambassador asked about gender issues. He seemed taken off guard or maybe just being modest, referring to women activist in the audience and social scientists to comment further on those issues. Yet, we all know that without rural women’s 16-18 hours work daily, and the men’s 10-12 hour’s work, ordinary people would have been less well off than they are, and the social fabric would not have been as strong as it is. There would have been more frustrated young people, and some would have searched for answers in extreme ideologies, or been lured by religious or secular agents.

The vast majority of Pakistani people do the best they can in daily life situations that are often not easy - except for the little upper and upper-middle classes who have it all. Few of the participants at the Oxbridge Lecture in the comfortable hotel auditorium in the capital would have been able to endure ordinary Pakistani’s hardship for long. We would simply have given up. Not so with the strong and good people of Pakistan!

Sometimes I wonder how often the country’s leaders appreciate what Durrani spoke about. The country could have been much more unruly than it is if ordinary people had not been as patient and loyal as they are. They are the first to notice the results of inflation and price increases, electricity shortages, poor health and education services, and so on. Yet, problems can be accepted, too, at least if they are temporary and there is improvement in sight.

Earlier last week, two research students, Imdad and Kashif, on home leave from long scholarship stays in Germany, drew my attention to the lack of optimism in the country. They thought they spotted a sad mood. The same way as Durrani was taken a bit by surprise when he was asked about women in the country, I was also a bit off-guard when asked about the country’s general mood and spirit. Having thought about it, though, I believe the young researchers had spotted something; people are in a relatively somber mood, slightly withdrawn from public debate, busy with their own daily chores and struggle to make ends meet. Most people realize that their purchasing power doesn’t go up, it probably decreases. Oil prices have gone down but that doesn’t seem to have lead to lower prices in other fields.

Whose fault is this, is it the government or the private sector? I would let the two share responsibility, and even in politics we have a business culture, which is often not good. The military and civil service are generally competent, though, but they administer status quo in a country with a deep class divide. Today, even the ordinary middle class is beginning to shrink. University teachers or lawyers are no longer privileged, and not all of them come from well-to-do backgrounds any longer. They, too, need a second job or a business to make ends meet. It is only the upper and upper-middle classes that don’t have to tighten their belts. But they must also notice the mood – every time they stop for a while in Pakistan, in-between their family, business and shopping trips to Dubai and the Western capitals.

True, the upper classes are not quite loyal to their homeland, and Pakistan seems not willing to give the class issue any serious attention. Those who are low on the class ladder have not quite realized that they have to fight for their rights themselves. That shows the lack of a political analysis and the shallow political culture in the land. No, I don’t criticize it; historically I can understand why it is like it is. But isn’t it time to do something about it?

Imdad and Kashif had a point when they drew attention to the somber mood, the lack of enthusiasm among people in Pakistan. Maybe their assessment was quite superficial based on talking to relatives and friends. But it was a sharp observation. Unfortunately, I think they were right. Then the question is: what can be done about it?

In addition to addressing the concrete issues of concern to poor and ordinary people, as the politicians in power must do, it is important to create an atmosphere of optimism and participation in the country. That shouldn’t be difficult in a country with 60 percent young people! If the youth aren’t optimistic already, they are not difficult to get on-board if leaders have the right messages and approaches. Optimism requires participation, discussion, and debate. People will be innovative, and with the right government policies and support, they can create jobs, find new ways to do things, and help everyone, also those who belong to old parties, old companies, old ownership structures and mindsets to change and do better.

I am glad to be in Pakistan now. I am optimistic because there are so many good and strong people here, as Durrani said in his lecture. The young have a solid foundation from good families. Their energy and cheerfulness must be allowed to burst now – in an optimistic and positive Pakistani spring, unlike all other springs. It must not be a protest movement; it must be the opposite. We should join hands with the youth so that they can realize more of their dreams, remembering, too, the good and strong people they are, and the good stock they come from.