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Volume 25

IAS (Mains) Preparations : Doing the Right Things

S. B. Singh

IAS mains can be truly called the mother of civil services examination"  for the obvious reason that it carries the bulk of marks which determines ones'  rank, service,  and cadre. If you score high marks in main examination, you get  a top rank, say within first hundred rank, which would  make you eligible for the three top services, i.e. IAS, IPS and IFS. Besides, you also get a cadre of your choice because you  will get priority by virtue of your high mains marks. Since prelims is just a qualifying exam, it is of no consequence in your rank, service etc. Similarly, the interview is just of 275 marks and it can not alone lift you to the desired  heights in the rank or service. Thus,  the importance of mains exam. must be understood in its proper context.
It is worthwhile to remember here the kind of skills that are tested in the mains examination. The skills are:
a.Cognitive Skill:  It refers to  the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and senses. In the context of IAS mains preparation, it would mean  making enough sense of acquired knowledge through  text books, reference materials, journals, newspapers etc. Without honing this skill adequately, a candidate  will end up just reproducing the acquired knowledge without making any sense of it.
b.Linguistic Skill:  Since the  mains exam is a written exam requiring subjective , structured answers, the cognitive skills are  supposed to be expressed through linguistic skill, i. e. the art of writing. I will emphasize here that  without  adequate linguistic skills, it is difficult to score  more than average marks no matter how much  knowledge you have at your disposal.
These two skills are  absolutely essential to crack IAS mains exam. The fact that a  large  number of  candidates are not able to clear the main examination in so many attempts  can be attributed  to lack of these two vital skills. Unaware of this, a   large majority of IAS aspirants just concentrate on reading, attending coaching, surfing websites and stay in the false impression that they are doing all that is required for the main examination.
How to improve cognitive skills?  IAS mains exam is not about recollecting and reproducing the existing knowledge and information. It is about making sense of it. To make sense of something, one  has to assimilate the available information through the process of a critical analysis of relevant facts   and produce them in an original  way. To improve cognitive skills, I suggest something very new and bold. Usually, a candidate depends on just a  few books circulating among them and on the advice of coaching teachers. This restricts their worldview tremendously. For better cognition, one needs to go beyond the narrow lanes of preparation and explore the wider path. The wider path includes access to original books, interaction with academic experts  beyond coaching world, e.g., some enlightened civil servants who have insights into govt policies, distinguished university professors who are regular commentators on national, international issues and even some well known journalists. Even if you do not know them, they can be requested to help and some of them will surely have time and interest in giving you vital tips. Such an approach lifts your preparation from a mediocre level to an excellent level and lends quality to your answers. Similarly, adding new insights through new source materials beyond what is suggested by coaching pundits  puts you in complete grasp of the subject. For example,  it is quite useful to read Bipan Chandra's book on Modern India. But if you also read some selected chapters from Nehru's" The Discovery of India", you will get insights into issues pertaining to freedom struggle. The same can be said about Nehru's book" Glimpses of World History" which  is written in a more lucid manner than most books on world history. For burning social, economic and political issues, books by Mark Tully, a famous journalist can be very handy. It is a general tendency among aspirants to buy hackneyed books and depend on them for the main exam. For example, there is a book on polity which is  just a compiled book by a non expert which has become most popular among candidates whereas  a book on Indian constitution written by Granville Austin is a storehouse of  wisdom on our polity. But hardly any candidate would know about it or struggle to know about it. Changing reading habits and upgrading the standards of books you read is crucial to your mains preparations. If you are reading what the whole world is reading, how you are going to distinguish yourself from others? Therefore, you must give up some fallacious ideas about reading sources and inculcate new ideas.
How to improve linguistic skills ?  Since your final output in the main exam is going to be what you have written in your answers, linguistic skills assume great significance. The main exam is more about crafting beautiful answers than collecting facts, making notes etc. I would like to recall my experience with a bright candidate who would know everything about everything when asked a question. But he scored poor marks in the mains and did not make it in his first attempt.  A close probe into his failure revealed that what he was able to narrate verbally, was not reflected in his written answers. In other words, what he knew was not coming clear in his written expressions. I am fully convinced that command over writing answers by developing linguistic skills  holds the clue to success in the main examination. This is a long term goal because no one can develop the art of writing overnight. However,  majority of candidates pay scant attention to this vital aspect of the exam. and begin writing practice at a very late stage. The other problem is with the misleading "TEST SERIES" which has become the first and last resort for answer writing practice. There is nothing wrong with the test series per se, but if it is not evaluated by distinguished experts, no accurate feedback is received by the candidate. It is  quite unfortunate that not  many   competent  evaluators are available to  guide a candidate to write  as desired in the main examination. Thus, two precautions are required in this regard. One, aspirants should plan writing practice from the very beginning of preparations for the mains exam and two,  get  the evaluation done by  a learned person rather than inexperienced, immature minds.
The  main components of linguistic skills are:
1Crisp, lucid writing
2.Simple, yet an original style of writing
3.Well connected paragraphs
4.Command over short answers( 150-175 words)
Mains GS Papers: the Right Approach
In  all, there are four GS papers each carrying 250 marks. The syllabus contained in these papers are static, dynamic and contemplative. The static part is mostly history, culture, geography. The dynamic part is the current affairs part. The contemplative part is in the ethics paper. A candidate has to maintain a fine balance among all  these four papers. This implies that you have to give equal attention to all the four papers.
GS PAPER I: Bulk of this paper is constituted by history, i.e. modern India, post modern India, world history, art and culture. Since it is the lengthiest part in this paper, the best way to approach it is to frame good quality questions on all areas of history syllabus and write crisp answers. Approaching the mains syllabus through questions is a very rewarding way of preparing for the  main examination.The other areas in GS II are geography and  social issues. In both these areas the  questions asked are from  current developments. For covering anything current, newspapers are handy.
GS PAPER II : The dominant part of the syllabus in this paper are  polity and governance issues. This requires a good comprehension of both static aspects, viz; the constitutioin of India and dynamic aspects , viz; the current developments in polity. Then , there is international affairs also as a part of GS paper II  which is completely current affairs oriented and that too most current development based. For GS paper II, one can heavily rely on current issues reported in newspapers, magazines. It does not, however, mean that static portions should be neglected.
GS PAPER III:  The syllabus outlined in this paper pertains to economic development, science and technology, environment and ecology, disaster management, and internal security. Thus, this paper is more diverse in terms of its coverage and therefore, needs a careful , balanced preparation of all these areas. Like GS paper II, this paper is also current affairs oriented and  can be covered to a large extent by extensive study of newspapers.
GS PAPER IV: This paper is on Ethics which is a new inclusion in the mains syllabus (since  2013).   This is more contemplative in nature than textual. Learning ethics is learning about life itself. So our day to day experiences can become the true narratives for this paper. The syllabus  outlined in this paper is purely indicative and it will be imprudent to take it literally. Also, the syllabus is less textual and more contextual. The problem with the ethics paper is lack of useful  study material in the form of books , notes etc. The existing books on ethics meant for IAS preparations are terribly irrelevant as they are exercises in mindless representations from philosophy, psychology and public administration.
Suggested Book List Modern India:
1.Bipan Chandra: India's struggle for independence
2.R. C. Pradhan: From Raj to Swaraj
3.A. R. Desai: Social background of Indian nationalism
4.Nehru: Discovery of India
5.Durga Dutt: India from Curzon to Nehru and after
6.Gazetteer of India: vol II
Post Independent India
1.NCERT: Politics since independence
2.NCERT: Social change and development in India
3.Bipan Chandra: India since independence
4.Paul  R. Brass: Politics in India since independence
World history
1.Arjun Dev and Indira Arjun Dev: A history of the world
2.L. Mukherji: History of Europe
3.L Mukherji: History of the World
Art and culture
1.A. L . Basham: The wonder that was India
2.Gazetteer of India: vol II
3.NCERT: The Indian arts
4.Basil Gray: The arts  of India
1.NCERT: 11th and 12th standard books only
Social Issues
2.NCERT: Social change and development in India
3.NCERT: Globalisation and social change
1.P. M Bakshi: Constitution of India
2.Granville Austin: The constitution of India
International Relations
1.Rajeev Sikri: Challenges and strategies
2.Muchkund Dubey: India's foreign policy
3.Shivshankar Menon: Choices
1.Misra and Puri: Indian Economy
2.Economic  Survey
3.Artha pedia ( website)
1.ARC Report: 4th Report
2.Nadkarni: Gandhian Ethics
( S. B. Singh is a academician and IAS mentor. He can be reached  at his e-mail: sb_singh2003@ yahoo.com)
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