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Celebration time

Independence Day was celebrated with unusually great fervour this year. I have grown up with Pakistan and August 14 used to be a day largely celebrated by the government. Apart from the public holiday, there were flag-hoisting ceremonies in federal and provincial capitals and Pakistan missions abroad. Newspapers would bring out special supplements and government buildings were initially lit up with oil lamps and later by electric ones. But for some years people have started flying national flags on rooftops and vehicles on this occasion. The number of such flags bought by the citizens this year was double that of 2015.

There were plenty of private fireworks in the evening. I saw many youngsters wearing green shirts during that day. I was having dinner with my family and friends in Lahore on August 13 and in the typical Lahori tradition we finished eating when it was almost midnight. The waiter brought the bill along with a cake with a topping of Pakistani flag. I had never seen so much popular participation in this day before. There were Independence Day special sales on garments in all big cities. What could be the reasons for this unusual fervour this year?

One could argue that commercialism has reached the Independence Day as well. Flag makers and fireworks sellers wanted to make money and tried to sell more of their products this year. But one saw a lot of spontaneous behaviour, which was totally voluntary in nature. Nobody had forced these people to buy these products in extra numbers this year. These Pakistanis wanted to celebrate their nationhood and identity on their own. National campaign against terror has been largely successful giving people a new sense of security. This has given commercial activity an added impetus.

In the last three decades, a large middle class has emerged in Pakistan. These are the people who live in Defence Housing Authority areas, Bahria Town and similar other localities where the living standards are vastly better than their previous generation. Many of them are young urban educated professionals. Some of them were either educated abroad or have worked in other countries and retired to a comfortable life in Pakistan. These are the people who have benefitted tremendously from their Pakistani nationhood. They also have surplus purchasing power, can buy fancy garments from fashionable boutiques and go to expensive restaurants.

I would admit that there is cynicism and frustration in Pakistan as well. People are quite sceptical about financial integrity of the political leadership and the bureaucracy. The officially admitted rate of unemployment is around 6 per cent. However, a robust private sector has evolved and it absorbs young educated professionals on merit. People are buying more cars and the number of vehicles on the roads has doubled in last ten years. Even some public sector departments like the railways, the National Data Registration Authority (Nadra), the Sindh Institute of Urology in Karachi and some of the Pakistani universities are performing well.

Motorways of international standard are making travel much more comfortable. But more than the material and mundane things, Pakistanis today enjoy unprecedented freedom of expression. Some of the court judgments show growing maturity and independence of mind. A recent Supreme Court judgment says the prime minister must take all important national decisions, financial in particular, through a consultative process in his cabinet. Pakistani media is like a live wire that gives instant sparks if the government errs on any important policy issue. These were the freedoms that Pakistanis were celebrating last week. This year, the Independence Day was made special when Pakistani cricket team defeated English team at the Oval. Cricket has become a national craze here.

But a lot more needs to be done if the fruits of Independence are to be shared by all. Poverty has to be reduced along with the number of uneducated. To achieve that the rate of economic growth has to be increased much above the population growth rate. Power shortages have to be eliminated so that wheels of industry keep constantly moving. Pakistan has the potential to achieve all this. But a bigger challenge is to produce better leadership which is only possible through sagacious use of vote.