Strategy for Political Science and International Relations Optional for UPSC

Political science and International relations is a very popular optional subject among the list of optionals provided by the UPSC for the Mains exam. There have been many toppers who have had political science as their optional subject. There are a number of reasons a good number of IAS candidates select this subject as their optional. In this article, we cover all you need to know about political science and international relations as an optional for UPSC mains exam.

How many candidates take Political Science optional?

As per the data given by the UPSC annual reports, 989 candidates had opted for political science as their optional in the 2015 civil services mains exam. Out of this number, 68 candidates were recommended revealing a success rate of 6.9% for that year. The following year, i.e., in the 2016 mains, a total of 1320 candidates had selected political science, out of which 85 were selected, which gives a success rate of 6.4%. In fact, the average number of candidates who take up this optional hovers around the 1000 mark. And, the success rate is a decent 6-7%.

Take a look at the following table for political science optional:

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates recommended Success rate (%)
2014 907 57 6.3
2015 989 68 6.9
2016 1320 85 6.4

Toppers with Political Science optional

There have been several IAS candidates who cleared the IAS exam with flying colours with political science & international relations optional. The most high-profile being Tina Dabi, who secured the first rank in the 2015 civil services exam, in her maiden attempt. Dabi got good marks in both her optional papers. She secured 128 and 171 out of 250 in her optional paper I and paper II respectively. These marks definitely helped her up her total marks.

The following table gives the names and ranks of a few toppers with political science optional:

Name Year Rank
Ankit Pannu 2017 31
Abhishek Sharma 2017 69
Keerthi Kiran Pujar 2017 115
Anand Vardhan 2016 7
Sidharth B 2016 15
Mirant Parikh 2016 67
K Dinesh Kumar 2016 6
Tina Dabi 2015 1
Karn Satyarthi 2015 9
Umesh NSK 2014 77

Political Science Pros and Cons

Many candidates take up political science as their optional every year because of the many advantages this subject offers to IAS aspirants.

Advantages of Political Science & IR optional

Overlap with General Studies (GS)

Political science has a good overlap with the general studies papers, especially GS Paper II. This overlap is true for both the prelims and the mains exams.

For the Prelims, Indian Polity is an important segment. The following table gives the number of questions asked from polity section in UPSC prelims over the years:

Year No. of questions from polity
















It is clear from the above table that polity questions form a sizable chunk of the prelims papers. “Indian Polity and Governance” is a topic under the UPSC Prelims Syllabus.

In the UPSC Mains Syllabus, political science optional syllabus would find a major overlap in the GS Paper II.

GS Paper II Syllabus: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice & International Relations

As you can see, the entire GS paper II syllabus is covered under this optional. Also, a portion of GS Paper III such as security and even environment are covered under this subject. In GS Paper IV, ethical thinkers is a topic that is covered if you take up this optional. Paper I of this optional has a topic ‘Political strategies of India’s freedom struggle’. This will also give you a bit of an overlap with history in GS I. Even topics like modern India and World History (post 1900) can be covered better through this optional.

Moreover, even in the essay paper, a topic on politics or related issues is asked. So, a candidate who studies this optional will get enough fodder to write about in related topics in the essay paper.

So, it can be safely said that there is considerable overlap of subject material if you take the political science and international relations optional. You can successfully integrate your prelims and mains preparation and also save a lot of time during the preparation process.

Help in current affairs coverage

Many topics in this optional are related to current affairs, especially in Paper II of this optional subject. As such, this will definitely help in your current affairs preparation. Conversely, this subject has a contemporary nature and so, answers can be embellished by quoting examples and anecdotes from the daily newspaper reading as well.

No background in subject needed

Another advantage of political science is that this is not a very technical subject. Hence, a candidate need not have any prior knowledge or experience in this subject. It can be read and understood if you access the right books and online sources. So, anyone with an interest in the subject can take it up.

Help in the UPSC interview

A knowledge about polity and international relations will also comprehensively help in the UPSC interview. This is because of the strong linkage of polity and IR with current affairs. An understanding of political theories will also help candidates present their views better and in a more convincing manner.

Cons of Political Science optional

No doubt, there are very many advantages of political science optional. But, there could be a few difficulties also, especially if candidates do not think through before selecting this optional. Political science has a lot of theory-based concepts. This means the answers should be presented in a very crisp manner. Generally, it is thought that good answer writing skills are essential to ace this paper. Even though this is true of all the UPSC papers, it is especially true for such optionals, particularly when you compare with more technical subjects like maths, science subjects, or even geography and anthropology.

Political Science optional Syllabus

Let us take a look at the syllabus for political science and international relations for the UPSC mains exam.

There are two optional papers in the UPSC scheme of things. Both the papers are for a total of 250 marks making the total optional marks to 500.

Download the Political Science and International Relations syllabus.

Political Science optional strategy

Paper 1

Section A (Political Theory and Indian Politics)

  • This is the most static part of the syllabus. Hence, it is straight-forward. However, it is also a complex part of the syllabus (particularly for people with a different background) for political science as a good understanding of the theories is needed to be able to write good answers.
  • There are a lot of thinkers to study about (Marx, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Gramsci, Aurobindo, etc.) and you should have a reasonable comprehension of the thought-process of thinkers as well to get a good grasp of their theories.
  • Some of the concepts in the syllabus such as equality, justice, affirmative action, etc. might seem very easy. But this is only at a superficial level. An in-depth study (since this is the optional paper and not GS) of these concepts is required.
  • Only a good conceptual clarity can help you write precise and lucid answers for this paper, helping you score better.
  • It is true that some of the theories are very different and so easy to remember. For instance, Gandhism and fascism are very different ideologies.
  • Once you get a solid conceptual understanding, you should try to interlink the various ideas. This will help you understand the differences between close concepts and also help you write answers connecting the dots. In order to do this, try to frame and answer questions like the ones given below:
    • What are the different ideas of hegemony and legitimacy discussed by Machiavelli in his book ‘The Prince’?
    • How has the evolving theory of rights contributed to the evolution of the ideas of democracy?
    • In what way has liberalism contributed to the development of feminism?
    • Compare and contrast the majoritarian theory of democracy and the participatory theory of democracy.
  • While studying thinkers, you can make charts and jot down each thinker’s take on various topics. This will also help you in revision. A small snippet is given below for your reference:
Thinker Take on Social Justice Argument Criticism
Plato Social justice is attainable. A republic is made up of rulers, soldiers and craftsmen. There is harmony when they perform their duties efficiently. There is justice. Republic and soul are isomorphic and analogous. The republic is a larger picture of the soul and harmony in the soul comes by a union of the 3 components of the soul, which are analogous to the 3 components of the republic (rulers, soldiers, craftsmen). It is too simplistic and ignores other major stakeholders in the sustenance of a state.
Rawls Social justice is attainable. Social justice is the standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed. It is fairness. People are free and equal. Freedom consists in possessing 2 moral powers, the power of justice and good. Once people in society have the relevant capacity to be fully cooperative members of society, they are equal and society is just. The concept of social justice is fluid. Defining and giving it a definite form strips it of its fluidity. No 2 societies are exactly the same and thus, what constitutes justice in one may amount to injustice in another. Social justice is, hence, relative to societies.
  • Another tip for revision is to keep writing short notes with just keywords for the famous quotes of thinkers. An example is shown below:

“Reality is the shadow of ideas.” (Plato)

    • Scholars – materialists and idealists
    • Theory of Reality give by materialists
    • Plato – School of Idealism – Father of Political Philosophy
    • Socrates – ultimate knowledge – permanent
    • Plato – ultimate knowledge about ideas
  • Behind the observable reality which we know through sensory organs lies the world of supreme reality
  • Supreme reality – Ideas – Reason
  • Allegory of Caves
  • World of ideas as ultimate reality – Pursuit of Philosophy -> Pursuit of Physics

Paper 1

Section B (Indian Government and Politics)

  • This is the section that has the most overlap with the General Studies paper II. Standard books like Laxmikanth and also online sources like websites of the various constitutional bodies are enough to do well in this section.
  • But it requires a more developed knowledge of the concepts than GS II. For instance, for questions on the evolution of the political party system in India, you need to understand the relationship between casteism and communalism in India. You need to understand how land reforms in India are related to state reorganisation, etc. And, all this have to be studied with linkages to contemporary events.
  • When you study for this section, make sure to stock important quotes from political scholars such as Paul Brass, Atul Kohli, Ramachandra Guha, etc.
  • You should also study relevant court cases because they ass great value to your answers.
  • The 2nd ARC Recommendations are also important in this section. You don’t have to remember everything from the reports, only 4 – 5 recommendations from each report are enough. For instance, the 6th Report for Grassroots Democracy, the 9th Report for Pressure Groups and NGOs, the 7th Report for Communalism, and the 12th Report for Statutory Bodies.

Paper 2

Section A (Comparative and International Politics)

  • Preparing properly for this section will ensure that you score pretty well in this paper. For this section, you should go through a few online sources that give good material for international politics.
  • In this section, you have to understand the various topics from the point of view of a few scholars and study a couple of examples for each topic. For example, when you study ‘Sociological Liberalism’: Understand what this is and how various scholars have explained this (John Burton, Karl Deutsch, etc.). You must also understand how they differ in their explanations with criticisms. An example can be the US-India Business Council (growth of transnationalism).
  • You should understand the relationship between concepts and events and also how new concepts evolve from old ones and how they are influenced by one another.
  • A good way to understand international politics is to know what guides the actions of the actors. For example, the resolution of the Doklam crisis by India and China could be attributed to the Complex Interdependence model (which is the existence of conflict and cooperation at the same time).

Paper 2

Section B (India and the World)

  • This is the most dynamic of all the sections in this optional.
  • Apart from basic reading, newspapers and online sources are very important for this section.
  • For this section, you can go through RSTV discussions that provide valuable insight into topics relevant for this paper. You can get a summary of all important RSTV discussions from our Gist of RSTV segment.
  • This section is largely based on current affairs. You must be thorough with India’s relationship with other countries like China, USA, and of course, the neighbours. You must also read about the relationships between major countries of the world like USA – China, USA – North Korea, Arab countries – Israel, etc.
  • You must also cover significant international organisations such as BRICS, NATO, SAARC, SCO and so on.
  • In this section, you can add value to your answers by augmenting them with concepts from Section A like Balance of Power, Deterrence, Security Dilemma, etc.

General tips for Political Science & International Relations Optional

  • Use relevant quotes while writing answers.
  • Focus on relevant editorials in the newspapers – they can provide valuable material to augment your answers.
  • Always give importance to current political perspectives.
  • Online sources are very important especially for dynamic sections of the papers.
  • Candidates can relate recent developments with theoretical frameworks and add value to answers.
  • When examples are given, they should be relevant and contemporary.
  • While writing answers for this optional, keep in mind the Four Cs – Compare, Criticise, Contemporary, Conclude.

Political Science Books for UPSC

Books for paper I

  • An introduction to Political Theory-  O.P. Gauba
  • An introduction to Constitution- D.D. Basu
  • Indian Polity – Laxmikanth
  • A History of Political Thought: Plato to Marx – Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy
  • India’s Struggle for Independence – Bipan Chandra
  • Politics in India – Rajni Kothari

Books for paper II

  • Does the Elephant Dance? – David Malone
  • India’s Foreign Policy – V.P. Dutt
  • Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy- Rajiv Sikri
  • Global politics- Andrew Heywood

NCERT Books for Polity (can be read to build a foundation in the subject)

  • Polity: NCERT Class IX – Political Science: Democratic Politics Part – I
  • Polity: NCERT Class X – Political Science: Democratic Politics Part – II
  • Polity: NCERT Class XI – Political Science: Indian Constitution at Work
  • Polity: NCERT Class XI – Political Science: Political Theory
  • Polity: NCERT Class XII – Political Science I: Contemporary World Politics
  • Polity: NCERT Class XII – Political Science II: Politics in India since Independence

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