How I Aced IAS Interview: Strategy and Transcript by Somesh Upadhyay (Score 195)

UPSC Interview is one of the most misunderstood part of the whole exam process. It also has its own mythical legends among the people in general, which we can see from this, this and this stupid articles. In my opinion, the Interview is the least stressful part of the entire grind that is CSE. I would discuss the strategy and the mindset required for it and also my interview experience.

The Mindset

  1. It is not a test of factual knowledge at all. That has been tested in the Mains Exam. If you understand this, you will be ahead of others. It has the following implications:
    • You will not be guilt-ridden for saying ‘I don’t know’. Be polite while conceding your ignorance of facts but don’t be sorry.
    • You will not get nervous fretting over what they might ask.
  2. It is the test of your personality. So you cannot plan or pretend to be someone else, at least not in front of the board with a collective experience of more than a century. This means that you will work on improving your personality rather than stitching a shroud.
  3. The Interview Board is not your Enemy. They are not sitting to penalize you but to analyze you. The rumours about this Board is bad and that Board is good should not be heeded to at all! It will play negatively in your mind.
  4. You have reached the Interview stage on your own merit. The UPSC has done no favour to you. So don’t be extra-polite, submissive or subservient during the interview.
  5. You are an aspiring civil servant, not a revolutionary. So think and talk like someone who will bring changes while being in the government. Behaving like a dreamy-eyed revolutionary who is high on fresh semi-dose of ideological -isms and schisms will not help at all.

The Preparation

My preparation for interview was very easygoing. I met a couple of seniors who had already appeared in the interview. But don’t take everything they say blindly; many of our opinions are subjective. Same goes with this article of mine.

I was into a 5-day week 9 to 6 job. I had reserved the Saturdays for mock interviews. Try to give 5-6 mock interviews at least. But again, do not get high on their praise or low on their criticism.

In one of the mock boards, I found the board member heavily leaning towards the rightist ideology. One of my hobbies was ‘spreading rationalism among people’ and it apparently came in conflict with his beliefs. So I did not go for any other mock there. The point is, mocks are just to get into the habit of conversing and are not to be taken too seriously.

My friends also formed a board and interviewed me for 4 hours at a stretch. That was immensely helpful too. Apart from this, I studied general details of my home state, district, school, college and other things that could come from the DAF. DAF should be carefully scrutinized to cover every possible question. For example, my address had Meghnad Saha Street mentioned, so I read the Wikipedia page on him.

The Actual Interview

Upon entering the room, I looked at the board members with a smile and reached near the chair meant for the candidates. I greeted each member individually, starting with the chairman. I sat, with thanks, as the chairman had asked me to sit even as I was greeting them. It was Mr. Vinay Mittal’s Board.

VM: (showing my photograph to me) Is this you Somesh?

Yes sir. That is me. (with a not-so-explicit smile)

VM: Tell me why do you want to become an IAS?

Sir, it gives me the opportunity and the capacity to become part of the nation building process.

VM: What is nation building?

It is the growth and development of the nation along with ensuring that the fruits of development reach the poorest of the poor. (He nodded, seemed satisfied)

Chairman(CM): But you did BSc in Microbiology and then research in Biology from a prestigious institute like TIFR. You could have continued doing science?

Sir, you are right. After doing Bsc and MSc in Biology, my natural career progression would have been to do PhD abroad…(CM interjects: Yes, that would have been your natural career progression). Exactly my point sir. It would have required me to spend more than a decade abroad. And I did not want to give the prime of my youth to some other country.

CM: Is Indian Polity unitary or a federal?

Sir, India is a federation with a strong unitary bias.

CM: What are the federal features?

Sir, the federal features include a written constitution, independent judiciary, bicameral legislature at the centre, division of powers…

CM: What is vertical and horizontal Division of Powers?

Sir, the horizontal division means the separation of powers among Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary. The vertical division of powers means the division between the Centre, the States and the PRIs.

CM: So if the state is not subordinate of the center, can they both legislate on everything?

No, sir. The three lists in the 7th Schedule of the Constitution has divided the different subjects of legislation among centre and the states, with some concurrent subjects.

CM: Can the Central govt. never legislate on the state subjects then?

No, sir. There are two special cases where the centre can legislate on state subjects. One, when the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution. Two, when two or more states request the centre to legislate on a subject.

CM: Your hobby is spreading rationalism. Can you give me example?

Sir, for example when I am travelling in a train, I strike a conversation with others about irrational views like communalism, fear of vaccination, faith healing etc.

CM: Do you also blog about it? (DAF hobby: Blogging about Indian Football)

(With a smile) No, sir. I blog about Indian football.

CM: What do you blog about Indian football?

Sir, it is an organisation called Indian Football Network. We have a blog and a forum through which we act as a pressure group to bring about changes in Indian football.

CM (After some pause): What is the govt. doing to create jobs?

(I was momentarily happy that the Polity grill was over only to realize that he has moved towards Govt. schemes. I was hoping to escape these two topics in particular. But in the interview hall my body language didn’t betray my uneasiness with those subjects)

Sir, the current govt. came into power with the mandate of providing jobs. Multiple schemes have been launched. (This intro was to buy time to recollect from memory). Skill India Mission to create skilled professionals, entering into MoUs with countries like Japan, whose demography is on the decline, to send our manpower there, supporting MSMEs through MUDRA (I missed Make In India), MGNREGA etc.

The CM seemed satisfied and pointed to another board member (M1) who kept his gaze on the table all the time and never looked at me while interviewing.

M1: What do you know about MGNREGA?

(He was sitting to my immediate right. I had turned slightly to my right to face him.)

Sir, the MGNREGA is a legal guarantee of 100 days of work in a rural area for adult persons who are willing to do unskilled jobs.

M1: Is it different from what it used to be?

Sir, earlier the focus of the scheme was to provide guaranteed job and thus income to rural households in the agricultural off-season to prevent distress migration. Now the approach is to create a balance between the objective of income and creating durable assets.

M1: What kind of assets and projects are taken up in MGNREGA

Sir, the projects can include watershed management, public toilets, rural roads, minor irrigation projects, public amenity buildings, schools etc. In short, it can be related to the subjects that have been given in the Constitution for the PRIs. (This was not correct, which M1 took note of and I too realized immediately)

M1: So the constitution itself devolves power to the Panchayats?

I’m sorry, sir. That part is not mandatory on the states. The states can choose to devolve powers to the PRIs.

M1: You have heard about Swachh..Swachhta Mission? What is it?

Sir, Saksharta Mission? (I couldn’t hear him clearly).

CM (interjects): Swachh Bharat Abhiyan..

(looking at the CM) Thank you, sir.

(turning again towards M1) Yes Sir. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) is aimed at achieving clean and healthy living environment with focus on sanitation and solid and liquid waste management.

M1: How are we going about it?

Sir public toilets are being built in order to achieve open-defecation-free panchayats and cities, Namami Gange, Solid & liquid waste management, creating awareness to turn it into a mass movement. SBA is becoming a component of many other schemes like Smart City Project, Namami Gange etc.

M1: What is a Smart City?

Sir, it is a city which has clean living environment, better public transport system with point to point connectivity, use of ICT, efficient water and electricity supply, access to healthcare and education and better governance.

Now the CM points to M2. He seemed to know a lot about Ramakrishna Mission (my schooling) and I was pleasantly surprised.

M2: What is Ramakrishna Mission? What does it do?

Sir, R K Mission was established by Swami Vivekananda in order to follow and propagate Vedanta philosophy in the light of the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. It takes up various works in fields of social justice, education, disaster relief, spiritual and moral education.

M2: Sri Ramakrishna had said ‘Jato Mot Tato Poth’. What does it mean?

Sir, it means that there are as many ways to reach God or Truth as there are beliefs. It essentially preached tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity.

M2: Do you remember the Pond analogy?

Yes, sir. He gave the example of a pond which has different shores (ghats). One can reach the different ghats via different path but essentially they receive the same water.

M2: Did he practice it in his own life?

Yes, sir. He had practiced worshipping of Krishna and Rama, Islam and Christianity in different phases of his spiritual journey.

M2: Have you heard about ‘Yogah Karma Sukaushalam’?

Sir, I have heard this term but cannot recall at the moment. Could you please explain?

M2: Essentially, it is about Karmayog. Anyone who does his job honestly is said to be a Karmayogi. Do you think a good thief is also a Karmayogi?

Sir, once Swami Vivekananda said that a butcher, who apparently has an immoral job of killing animal, who does his work diligently is also a Karmayogi and is reaching towards God. But in my opinion, a theft is a different kind of immorality with a universal nature. So I am not sure if he can be called a Karmayogi.

M2: Do you remember the RK Mission Logo? And what does it mean?

(I had anticipated this question from DAF and read about the logo a couple of times. Explained it but not very fluently.)

CM points towards M3 now who was sitting to my immediate left.

M3: India and Pakistan are enemy countries. But now both have nuclear weapon. Do you think this has both advantages and disadvantages?

Sir, Pakistan is a rogue state with multiple actors. It uses terrorism as strategic assets, sells its nuclear arms to other rogue nations and has a declared policy of bleeding India through thousand cuts. So, I do not see any advantage in Pakistan having nuclear weapon.

M3: Ok. But suppose any two countries which are enemies and both possess nuclear arms. Is it advantageous?

Yes, sir. If the two countries are responsible states, like India and China, they would stop escalation of war as they know nuclear war leads to mutually assured destruction. But coming back to your previous question (M3 looked pleased), Pakistan is not a responsible state and hence cannot be trusted with the nuclear weapon. (All members nodded).

M3: Communism became very popular in the first half of the 20th century. But after WWII it declined. Why?

(At this point I was feeling slightly exhausted. I also needed a few seconds to think.)

Sir, can I have water before I answer your question?

M3: Sure

CM: Yes yes. This is for you only.

(I calmly removed the lid over the glass, picked it up, drank two sips and kept the glass back to where it was. Then I readjusted myself slightly on the chair, turned to M3 and started again.)

Sir, in the post-WWII scenario, USA and USSR came up as the biggest power centres with competing ideologies. USA was afraid of the domino effect of Communism and hence used various means to contain it. It waged a war against Communism both economically via Marshall Plan and militarily via NATO, CENTO, Korean War, Bay of Pigs invasion etc. Communism declined with the declining fortunes of USSR.

M3: Why do the Communist governments in different countries turn autocratic?

Sir, the Communist countries do not tolerate alternate ideologies. Due to this, there is lack of opposition and democratic dissent. This leads to concentration of power (CM: yes, concentration of power) and hence autocratic nature of govt.

M3: Can you name some of the countries that have communist governments?

Sir, Russia (M3’s eyes get bigger with surprise) is now an oligarchy (eyes normal again), China of course has opened its economy since Den Xiaoping. Cuba can be called one, even as they are warming up to the USA. And North Korea.

The Chairman takes over.

CM: I will ask you one last question. See, Communism came as an ideology that promised equality to everyone while Capitalist promised benefits to only a handful of capitalists. And yet, it is Capitalism that became more popular. Why?

(While I was taking a few seconds to think, the CM thought that I could not understand the question and repeated it. It gave me some more time.)

Sir, when Capitalism came it came as laissez faire where exploitation was uninhibited. But later it changed into a market economy. With the intervention of govt., the wealth created was more or less equitably distributed. This increased acceptance of Capitalism. Though the communist governments in some countries have been able to provide basic amenities to all, the general poverty and lack of freedom has decreased its popularity. Also finding a benevolent dictator is like a lottery, only one out of thousands turn out to be benevolent.

Another important thing is that in Communism, there is a limit to how much a person can prosper(CM: yes, there are fetters to growth). Yes, sir, fetters to growth…In capitalism, everyone thinks that they have a chance to become more prosperous and maximize their potential.

CM: This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Thank you. Your interview is over.

I get up. Thank every member, readjusted the chair as it got pushed a bit and left.

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