The past year in my life has seen a whirlwind of activity like never before and as it happens, the process itself was a very enriching experience. I had my lows and disappointments but the final verdict made up for all of that and more. Through this process, I understood my strengths and weaknesses better and tried my best to turn my adversity to an advantage.
The biggest challenge I faced was political science. Coming from a largely technical background, I had no prior knowledge of the subject except what I had studied in GS. By prelims, I knew that my GS preparation was in order. I scored a 134 in GS in prelims and that corroborated my belief. But having started Political Science classes in July 2014 , I felt pretty lost in the beginning. But soon enough, the subject caught hold of my imagination.
I decided to keep pace with the class in topics that were alien to me (Paper1, Part 1) and finished the parts like International Relations and Indian Govt and politics from previous year’s notes simultaneously. By November, I had managed to finish the huge syllabus and then I proceeded to consolidate and revise. Thankfully, my answer writing practice in GS bailed me out in Political Science but I still believe that it is advisable to practice answer writing for optional separately. I figured this out in the last few weeks before mains. In the end, the story had a happy ending as I managed to score 293 in the optional, with 136 in paper 1 and 157 in paper 2. I am told that this is the highest score this year. I must admit that this was a pleasant surprise.
My choice of Political Science and International Relations (PSIR) as an optional was based solely on interest. Further, I saw a considerable overlap between PSIR and GS :
- Paper 1- Post independence India, Cold war phase of world history and beyond;
- Paper 2 – polity and IR;
- Paper 3- political economy, planning and eco dev, land reforms etc and;
- Paper 4- thinkers, ideas of justice and equality;
Further, I enjoy writing and wanted to choose a subject where I can use it as a strength.
Considering these aspects, I was very clear on the premise that if one is interested in a subject, one can delve deeper into the content and assimilate things faster. Political Science has thus been far from a drab and dreary syllabus that would have not fuelled my imagination. Instead, its dynamic content and the role it played in helping me understand the context that we live in, was a great catalyst in driving my interest further.
Having said this, its also important that we don’t get swayed by our interest to the extent that we neglect what the needs of the examination are. At the end of the day, we are expected to balance our preparation of GS as well as optional. In Political Science, one has the luxury of often using GS knowledge in the optional paper and vice versa but the difference between the two must be understood clearly.
In GS, we are expected to take a broad view and the extent of coverage matters more than the depth. In Optional, you should come off as a student of the subject to the examiner. In other words, one has to be a Generalist in GS and a specialist in Optional. Remember that a generalist will probably check your paper in GS and using complicated excerpts from your optional may not help. So, even if you may have studied about Rawls and Taylor in Justice , any take on the issue in GS should be based more on current facts, Constitutional provisions and not the thinkers!
Coming back to Political Science preparation, Let me tell you at the outset that I am an engineer by training (and not such a good one at that) and I have no background in political science. There may be many more sources to study from but I tried to restrict myself to a limited number due to paucity of time. In the following sections, I have tried my best to cover the paper partwise:
Paper 1 , Part A
In this section, I primarily followed Shubhra Ranjan Madam’s class notes. Considering that I had no background in the subject, these helped me clarify my concepts well. Apart from the class notes, I referred to O P Gauba for some sections and though I read it after Mains, I found Rajeev Bhargava to be good for political ideals like Justice, Equality etc. I was planning to use it this time; thank goodness I did not have to J
Also in this section , I think its very important to establish linkages as you move on.
If you are reading about a thinker, try to understand the context of his work, his influences and his critics. If you are reading about a political ideal like Justice, think of all the thinkers and their take on the subject – you should be able to recall the crux of their theories and articulate it well. If you are reading about theories of the state, think of how they affect aspects like individual liberty or the conception of society. In the end, you will have a well-connected web from which you can answer questions which you probably have not read explicitly!
In this section I did not use any examples from polity or international relations and stuck to my palette. I think this section is more about your theoretical knowledge and your ability to make interconnections. For example in the question of Hannah Arendt’s conception of power this year, I wrote about her ideas (sui generis , power experienced by people as a collectivity etc) but also connected it in the end to how this idea of power greatly influenced Jurgen Habermas’ conception of communicative power. Such things let the examiner know that you have not only read the topic but also dwelled upon it.
Last but not the least, your writing skills can be exploited to the maximum in this section. In political thought, words are your weapons and you can use them wonderfully to weave a structured, organized answer often dealing with the abstract. So, this section may require some answer writing practice. It’s the only section for which I had the time to practice answers for.
Paper 1, Part 2:
This section is very similar to GS Paper 2. Here also I followed Shubhra Madam’s class notes. For Indian Government and Politics, B L Fadia is a good book. There are some sections like Caste, ethnicity in Indian politics which can be supplemented from the book. The part on tribal and peasant movements can be found in Spectrum’s history books that we read for GS History
Now, the questions are much more analytical and dynamic and so keep an eye on the issues in public discourse. Last year was an election year and as expected there was a 20 marker from electoral reforms. Also, after the Left parties were routed in 2014 general elections, a question on marginalization of the left was seen in the Short Notes. The NJAC debate found place in the question paper too. These questions can very well be predicted and so should be well prepared beforehand. I had these ready but my time management got messed up in the end.
In most ways , the preparation of this section will not need too much effort if you have prepared GS 2 well. Just write the answers in a well rounded way, and you will be good.
Paper 2, Part 1:
This part has a lot of variation in it. In case of Comparative Politics, I referred to class notes and IGNOU Notes. For the rest, I supplemented class notes with Andrew Heywood ( Global Politics ).
In this section, there should be a balance of static theory and dynamic examples. For example , in the question about the changing nature of national security, I wrote about how at the end of Cold war , lack of external threat led to the release of centrifugal forces within countries leading to civil war and ethnic clashes. In this I gave examples of Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. Further, I wrote about complex interdependence and how one nation’s security depends on its neighbours’ stability as well. Here I gave example of how rise of Taliban and Soviet pullout in Afghanistan coincided with Mujahideen attacks in Kashmir. Then, I wrote about new notions of security like energy security, food security etc. Thus, try and relate the theory with events to substantiate them further . This makes your answer stand out.
In many topics like UN, Democracy, Gender Justice, environment etc., do try and focus on areas where India plays an active role. For example: In case of UN, terrorism, peace-keeping and Security Council reform have happened to be areas where India’s engagement has been maximum and thus these deserve special attention. Questions have overwhelmingly been from these topics in the past. Also, last year’s Lima summit and Paris summit due in December 2015 demand that the North-South debate in environment and India’s position be given special attention.
Since “Changing International Political Order” remains a part of the syllabus and a buzzword in strategic planning circles, keep an eye out for trends like China’s rise and US reactions, revisionist powers like Russia, Iran’s position in the Middle east and implications of the new nuclear deal and the like. The question on the Ukraine crisis this year shows that even though India may not be involved directly in many events , as students of PSIR we cannot neglect such tectonic shifts in global politics.
Paper 2, Part 2:
This is the most dynamic of all sections. Your answers will have a skeletal base of history and have to be peppered with current events. You should have a clear idea of where we stand in terms of bilateral relations as well as key tenets of India’s foreign policy. Also, try and see the trends in foreign policy execution at present- increase of summit-style diplomacy, high speed engagement or fast power, rise of PMO vis-à-vis MEA in foreign policy formulation, collaboration with states in pursuing bilateral relations.
For this section, apart from class notes, I had referred to V N Khanna’s book on foreign policy. It is a little outdated but gave a good background. Does the Elephant Dance by David Malone is an excellent book and is a great read. Try and keep notes out of these because you wont have time to revisit them.
The questions were quite on expected lines in this section this year. Japan, Russia, Bangladesh featured and most serious aspirants would have a grip on these aspects. The key in such cases is to give a well-organised and structured answer. Try to answer the question in coherent blocks, with a good background as introduction and your own outlook as the conclusion . For example, in the question of key drivers of engagement with Russia in the post cold war era, I wrote one line about the excellent relation during cold war( peaks at 1971 treaty, special and privileged partnership etc) and then shifted to the body of the answer. Here, I wrote in logical flow of most impàleast imp (defence, nuclear, oil and gas exploration, rough diamonds etc) . Try and back your arguments with facts. Remember, you are a specialist when you write these answers.
This section not only demands facts arranged in an orderly manner but also your insight into India’s positions on complex bilateral and global issues in a fast-changing world. Try and relate events with India’s interests- for example: the prominence of IS in political discourse could have been the reason behind the question on terrorism in West Asia.
How to Write Answers
I think one of the most important, yet most neglected areas in the course of preparation is answer writing. I had not written any subjective papers since school days and so after prelims I realized that I was in a tough spot. In the mock tests that I appeared in September 2014 , I could only finish 17 out of 25 questions in 3 hours . I realized then that all my preparation amounted to nothing if I could not present my knowledge to the examiner. Hence this is an area where I tried to improve my performance religiously in the next 3 months. In this process I realized the following:
- Love thy examiner
This one person holds the key to your success. It is not only fair but also logical for you to make his/her life as easy as possible. Remember that he/she is not doing you a favour by checking your answer-sheet. Its your job to generate his/her curiosity and then grasp his/her attention.
For this, you should keep a neat and legible handwriting, use considerable spacing and write in a logical flow. In case of GS , I tried and wrote in bullet points wherever possible. I wrote an introduction, then analysed the pros in the first section and cons in next and finally gave a conclusion. Your introduction should set the tone for your answer and conclusion should be balanced with a slice of your own outlook.
In political science, I wrote in short paragraphs and avoided bullet points as I personally thought that as a specialist writing an answer, paragraphs imparted greater maturity and connectivity. As I stated earlier, put the most important point first and the least in the end. Also, use references of political thinkers wherever possible. For example, in the question on SAARC I wrote in the conclusion that following a functionalist approach ,we can resolve regional problems issue-wise leading to “peace by pieces”- which is the takeaway of Functionalist theory.
Such elements convince the examiner that you not only follow the news but you also think like a strategic affairs specialist. This is where I believe he/she will give you those extra marks which can propel you ahead of others.
Takeaway: Try and make your answer sheet the most pleasing one in the stack.
- Keep points ready:
Answer writing has two parts- first and the more critical one is the recollection and organization that takes place in our heads and the second part is pure execution of the same. I realized that I was writing answers slowly because I had to pause and think. It was the first part that was pulling me down as my writing speed was fairly good.
So I started consolidating what I knew. I kept some points ready in my head for almost all topics. There are many topics which are in the news and seem important or broad issues at that. For example: In India’s role in UN peacekeeping, I clearly organized the issue into India’s past missions, laurels won, problems faced and need for reform. When I saw the question, I could tailor the answer to the requirements of the question much faster.
So, for speed not just writing practice but the whole exercise of retention and retrieval in your mind are very very important. While writing one point, you should plan about your next ones. By December, I could attempt 25 questions in 3 hours. In political science, I could attempt almost the full paper (left about 5 marks) because of my answer writing practice in GS mock tests.
Takeaway: The faster you think, the faster you write
- Stick to your time schedule:
I had never given a political science test before the actual mains paper and so in the first paper my time management was horrible. I wrote 50 marks worth in the last 15 minutes. I am thankful that I got 136 because I am sure in those last minutes of blitzkrieg my brain was on auto-pilot.
In the 2nd paper, I managed time better and gave the right amount of time to each question. I ended up scoring much better in it ( 157) . Sticking to the time schedule is very important so that you can do justice to every question. Remember that attempting all questions well will fetch you much more marks than writing a thesis on 3-4 questions.
Takeaway: Your watch is your friend
- Innovate and Interlink:
Especially in a subject like Political Science where there are so many connections, linking events can fetch you more marks. For example in US-India relations, you must mention the rise of China and the possibility of US visualising India as a counterweight to China in its Pivot to Asia policy.
Similarly, give examples to reinforce your points which will add weight to your answer, Using key terms which you may have picked up from newspapers can help. For example: I remember writing about the possibility of formation of a “middle powers coalition” in the question related to Japan. This is a reference to possible cooperation between India, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific considering greater Chinese assertion. I thought then that putting such an idea seemed like a gamble, but it seems to have paid off.
Takeaway: Train your mind to form a web of information
- Practice! Practice! Practice!
Needless to say, all of the above aspects can only be covered through thorough study, planned revision and practice in answer writing. Try and write answers of past years questions and try to observe the pattern and focus areas, especially in the recent years. You can then get them peer reviewed and assimilate the best points.
Takeaway: Do a little more when you think it is enough
With time, you should be able to plan an answer roughly before you put it on paper.
Hope this helps