Political Science & International Strategy
by Dhananjay Singh Yadav, Rank 95 CSE-2018
Hi, I am Dhananjay Singh Yadav. I got Rank 95 in UPSC CSE 2018. This was my first attempt, and my optional was Political Science and International Relations (PSIR). I took the civil services exam to get into Indian Foreign Service.
I have written about my Prelims and Mains strategy before; all my resources and complete notes have been shared here. I hope this article helps people in similar predicament wrt PSIR that I was in a year ago, just little over three months before the Mains. I prepared PSIR after prelims: without any classroom coaching or answer writing practice.
Selecting the Optional
Since optional constitutes 500/2025 towards the merit list, it is important to outperform in it to get into the service of your choice. Hence, I spent a couple of months in picking up my optional paper. I had a passing interest in Geography (I am good with maps) and a strong interest in International Relations. I briefly considered Management optional because it mirrored my graduation syllabus.
I eventually decided to go with Political Science and International Relations (PSIR) for these 3 reasons:
(a) significant overlap with GS papers – polity, international relations, ethics, et al
(b) availability of reading material and notes
(c) subject had helped many people secure top 100 ranks in recent years.
If there’s one stop, single source reading material for PSIR, it is Shubhra Ranjan madam’s notes. By reading the strategy of the two people I mentioned above, I decided to not bother with any other reading material. I found some of the notes online in August 2017 and spent a couple of months reading through them (Paper I and Paper II Part A) by devoting 2-3 hours a day. I had also ordered Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor (read once, never picked up again) and Does the Elephant Dance by David Malone (used to prepare notes after prelims but was written in 2010 hence a bit outdated) around the same time to get a sense of Paper II Part B.
However, instead of focusing on reading the material of optional along with prelim prep, I decided to go all in for prelims somewhere in early November (full 7 months before prelims). I had concluded that there’s no mains or optional to study for if I don’t clear prelims. At that point I was also worried that I won’t be able to complete my GS syllabus by February end. I wanted at least 3 months before prelims for full revisions and decided to sacrifice my optional study time. Again, this was a calculated risk as preparing PSIR from ground up after prelims and scoring even 300+ was not unheard of.
Resources and booklist
After I realised that I will clear prelims in all probability, I ordered the original notes that Shubhra Ranjan madam’s website delivers. (was later told could have gotten them at 1/5 price! But I have pirated enough PC games in this lifetime to know when one should pay the developer). I didn’t join her classroom coaching as:
(a) Didn’t think I had time and energy to commute to classes (I live in Noida)
(b) The notes are self-explanatory and I could understand basic concepts
(c) For everything else there’s internet – plato.standford.edu is great if you can handle the complexity, but only for understanding any thinker’s original ideas. Crash Course Philosophy is informative and fun. Articles from ORF, Indian Express, Foreign Policy cover aspects of dynamic sections of Paper II.
(d) I have been a backbencher and usually sleep in classrooms
I finally ended up preparing the syllabus with the following resources, I also googled whatever I didn’t understand easily:
- Paper I Part A – Shubhra madam’s notes only
- Paper I Part B – Shubhra madam’s notes only. Revised Laxmikant once as well to cover topics in the syllabus + read relevant GS-2 current affairs again
- Paper II Part A – Shubhra madam’s notes + own notes
- Paper II Part B – selective Shubhra madam’s notes + Does the Elephant Dance by David Malone + own notes (from Foreign Policy, ORF website (absolutely the best for India’s foreign relations and quoting renowned scholars), the Economist, Indian Express, wherever else Google took me). I ended up with extensive notes of my own for this entire part.
All of my notes are here:
Paper II Part A is here: Comparative and IP pdf
Paper II Part B is here: India and the World pdf
Some topics are not directly in notes (such as peacekeeping), I must have either read madam’s notes or googled it last minute.
Reading and revising
I decided that for maximum retention and greater recall value in exam hall, I would need at least 5 revisions. Since the optional would require me to think less on my feet (unlike GS), and more on what I read and remember, I decided to make short notes based on madam’s notes. I did it for entire book notes except Paper II Part B. This is what it looked like:
This is how my readings went after prelims:
- Mid-June to July end 2018 – first reading and scribbling of the notes (image above). This was done in detail and by devoting 4-5 hours to the optional every day. My primary concern was understanding concepts and not trying to retain information.
- August 2018 – one reading every fortnight; I would read the book notes along with the sticky notes. I actively tried to retain ideas and thinkers/scholars.
- September 2018 – one reading every ten days; I would read the book notes along with the sticky notes but much faster than I did in August. I challenged myself by randomly trying to remember information/idea/thinker from the sticky notes. I must have finished with these 5 readings a week before the first mains paper, the Essay.
- Week between GS and optional – I read only from the sticky notes, trying to remember key words for every subtopic. I had color coded the sticky notes by topics, hence over course of 5 readings and final revision, I could locate any topic in my mind (by thinking where it was on the wall – poor man’s mind palace maybe?)
These became my dreaded good night notes (as I would revise optional before sleeping) but at least they were colourful and bright.
I had no time for answer writing for the optional as I was spending my other half of the day revising GS and writing GS + Essay online mocks here at Insights. However, I had taken some time out to study answers of past toppers of PSIR; madam’s notes have a dedicated book of sample answer writing (Book 5b I think). I got the general sense of how to go about writing an answer in the optional:
For concept/idea based questions:
1. Who theorised it and inspirations behind it if any
2. Core points explaining the idea, include diagram/flowchart (rare, only if it helps)
3. Arguments for and against the idea, citing scholars
4. Relevance in present times / critical analysis
For current affairs based questions:
1. A generic opening surrounding the event/news, a quote if I could remember one
2. Core points explaining the situation
3. Explain for and against arguments, citing scholars
4. Critical analysis / pragmatic opinion or solution, citing scholars if needed
This is the general template I decided to follow, unless the question asked for a one-sided argument. This gave me a sense of structure to follow and I walked into exam hall with zero answer writing practice for optional but some confidence.
Quoting scholars and thinkers:
For paper I and half of Paper II, I didn’t try finding or reading scholars outside of what were provided in madam’s notes. I tried to remember only a couple of them for every topic (and over multiple revisions) and was in a position to recall them in the exam hall, since I didn’t try to remember 5-7 for every point of view.
For Paper II Part B, I googled books involving – India’s its foreign policy or bilateral relations – to quote in answers. I found their reviews and added them my notes. I could, then, quote an array of books without actually having ever read them. Building my notes from ORF also meant I could quote Harsh V Pant and Manoj Joshi liberally on any India specific current affairs question.
For example, Avinash Paliwal’s My Enemy’s Enemy and Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country were used to back my arguments in a question about India-Afghanistan-Pakistan. I quoted Schaffer and Schaffer’s India at the Global High Table on a question about India’s foreign policy. Milan Vaishnav’s When Crime Pays found its place in my answer on political personalities. I could quotes views of a few thinkers such as Stephen Walt and Robert Kagan without explicitly adding them to my notes (reading Foreign Policy off my Facebook feed since college). I also defaulted to David Malone’s Does the Elephant Dance as I had based my notes on India and its relations with important countries on this book. And if there was no one else to quote, there was Raja Mandala
Attaching pdf of my last minute notes I had made for thinkers and scholars, and hot topics from optional perspective (some of this I merged with full-fledged notes, see pdf above, while revising)
In the exam hall
In the exam hall, the divine principles are:
1. Finish the whole paper (I almost succeeded, but in the second paper I messed up my time management, ended up leaving a ten marker and couldn’t conclude another ten marker). Pick the questions you are going to write the moment you get the paper, it helps you think about what you have to write beforehand.
2. Optional paper requires you to come across as an expert of the field with considerable depth of knowledge. Try to retain names of scholars and thinkers as much as possible. I could cite 2-4 scholars in every answer I wrote, using the techniques mentioned above.
3. Interlink your answers with other concepts in political science/international relations. This can only come by understanding concepts inside out and making a conscious effort to include them in your answers. For example, in Trump-Kim question I talked about how structural realism is the reason behind current geopolitical tensions between the USA-DPRK. In an answer analysing USA-China rivalry, I specifically talked about complex interdependence.
4. Paragraphs over bullet points, you need to come across as an expert. Write as if you are writing an editorial, except your deadline arrives every 7 to 12 minutes.
I received 283/500 marks in optional (Paper I – 144, Paper II – 139). It’s not that great considering there are many who got 300+, but I don’t think I should complain J
Only in hindsight, I can call this a “strategy”. Nonetheless, it worked for me. Hope reading this helps you figure out a successful strategy for yourself.