MEET Former Chancellor of Austria Wolfgang Schüssel, who is back in Kerala for some R&R
I t’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken and unassuming Wolfgang Schüssel for the seasoned politician that he is, used to dealing with the highest echelons of power on the global stage. In fact, the former Chancellor of Austria (2000-2007) and President of the European Council (2006), who is on his second visit to Kerala, keeps such a low profile that even those at Coconut Bay Resort at Vizhinjam, where he likes to stay on his visits to the State, didn’t know there was a VVIP guest in their midst when he came the first time!
“I’m here for some rest, relaxation and rejuvenation with my wife, Jiji Schüssel, and a couple of friends,” says Schüssel, his face crinkling into a smile, before reversing roles and questioning me in-depth on the education system in India. “I’ve always been impressed by the erudition of people here,” he explains, adding: “I’m well-versed with the country. I have visited India several times when I was the Austrian Minister for Economic Affairs and later the Foreign Minister and have always had a really good impression of India and its people, especially Dr. Singh (that’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), who I think is simply brilliant.”
Schüssel, a member of the Austrian People’s Party, hails from Vienna. He retired from Parliament in 2011 after 18 years in Government, and is currently in several think tanks and sits on the advisory boards of Bertelsmann Foundation and RWE Group. Excerpts from a quick interview with the 67-year-old…
It was my daughter Nina, an actor and psychologist, who introduced me to Kerala. She’s an avid backpacker too and discovered this gem of a State while on an extended trip across Tibet, Nepal, South East Asia and South India. She’s the one who booked Jiji’s and my first trip here as a gift for our 40th wedding anniversary. I admit I was a bit sceptical at first about coming here but it turned out to be a positive experience. We loved it so much that we wanted to come back and even recommended it to many of our friends and fellow politicians back home. In fact, one of my friends, Waltraud Klasnic, the Governor of Styria province in Austria, was here in Vizhinjam a couple of weeks ago.
And your impressions of Kerala…
I’ve not had much of an opportunity to travel within the State because I am undergoing Ayurvedic treatment, which by the way has been fantastic. The past two weeks we’ve been on a strict diet and exercise regimen…vegetarian food, no alcohol or smoking, and yoga, twice a day! I really feel rejuvenated. I think you have something fantastic going on here, this trend towards ‘soft tourism’ (environmentally and socially compatible tourism seen as an alternative to mass tourism). It adds value to the region, especially because the population of the world is ageing and soft and health tourism is set to become big business. Now, I hear that if the Vizhinjam port project comes through, the entire coastline and thousands of jobs and business will be affected… It reminds me of the situation in Crete, Greece, where there are plans to build a container port. I’m wary of such big projects that cost hundreds of billions. I’m a big believer in giving more impetus to small and medium businesses instead. That’s how Austria’s been weathering the fiscal storm in Europe.
Coming back to Kerala, I find it to be completely different from my experience of Delhi and the North of the country. Life here is so less rigid; you’ve got a slice of paradise here. But we did make trips into Thiruvananthapuram [he whoops with pleasure when he gets the pronunciation right]. I found it to be a typical Indian city – full of life, people, sound, joy and spiritualism. We went to St. Mary’s Church the other day and were astounded to see the sheer number of people who had come for mass, especially young people. Sadly, this level of spirituality is decreasing in Europe. Then again, freedom and spirituality are at the core of India, aren’t they?
Europe’s perception of India
In our eyes India is really a shining example of democracy, free media, free society, education... Of course, there are problems too with the environment, the economy, corruption…but all that is there everywhere, including the so called developed world. India has incredible potential to be a superpower in the 21st century. The country has always been an important partner for Europe.
The European Union, though, is in pretty bad shape...
The EU is something that is very close to my heart. I don’t miss domestic politics but I miss European politics. I believe that the EU and the European economy can weather the storm. Europe has always been an equation of war and peace. A 100 years ago who would have thought that 27 countries with different democracies, opinions, cultures, interests could function as one? Already there are signs of revival. I think it would be a big mistake if they were to split it up!