Abhimanyu Gahlaut (Rank-38/CSE-2015)
Interview board chairman – Dr. David Syiemlieh
Duration : 30 minutes.
Chairman: Abhimanyu, please sit.
Me: Thank you, Sir.
Chairman: Good Afternoon.
Me: Good Afternoon, Sir.
Chairman: Please wish the lady. It’s polite.
(I wish the lady, and then everyone else, again. I’m nervous now, because clearly I’ve not done something extremely basic)
Me: Sir, when I walked in, I was trying to catch everyone’s eye, but everybody seemed busy with papers, so maybe my greetings went unnoticed. I apologize.
(At this, M2 laughed, and said that the candidates of course keep the panel busy. Everyone else smiled, and I thought my apology had been accepted. I thought it best to let this go. Although I was nervous, I told myself that there was nothing more I could do about this situation, and it was best to proceed as I would normally)
Chairman: So, Abhimanyu, I see that you’re earning a handsome salary right now. Why do you want to join the IAS? You will be taking a large pay cut.
Me: Sir, I want to join the IFS; regardless, I take your point about the pay cut. However, if you notice my work experience so far, you’ll see that money has been incidental to the kind of work I’ve done so far…
Chairman: (cutting me off mid-sentence): I don’t believe that. I don’t think money has been incidental in your choices. Why would you go to Rwanda and Bihar if it weren’t for the money involved?
Me: Sir, my decision to pick the kind of work I’ve done has been influenced by trying to do interesting things. I grew up in a small town in Haryana, and I always wanted to live and work internationally. After my master’s degree, I was offered other positions in more ‘mainstream’ locations for an almost equivalent compensation, but I chose to go first to Rwanda, and then to Bihar, for the novelty of the geographies.
Chairman: I see that you work for the London School of Economics right now. What do you do for them? Do you teach?
Me: No, Sir. I work for an LSE policy think-tank, called the International Growth Centre, or the IGC. We aim to fund development-oriented research that can feed directly into policymaking.
Chairman: Who funds your organisation?
Me: We’re funded solely by the UK’s Department for International Development, but the money is routed via the LSE.
Chairman: (smiling): The way you just said ‘routed’, (I’d pronounced it raau-tid), it’s very American. What’s a more ‘desi’ way of saying it?
Chairman: You lived in Rwanda for two years. Wasn’t there a genocide in Rwanda in 1994? What can we learn from Rwanda?
Me: I think the most important lesson from the Rwandan experience is that the international community should be more responsive and swift in addressing humanitarian disasters.
Chairman: Yes, but what can India learn from Rwanda?
Me: Sir, comity between members of different tribes, ethnicities, and religious faiths is essential to maintaining the fabric of society. As Indians, the Rwandan experience only goes to reaffirm that our constitutional values of pluralism and secularism need to be defended at any cost.
Chairman: Okay. Where would you like to work as a diplomat?
Me: I would like to work primarily within the region, Sir.
Me: South Asia region, Sir.
Hands over to M1- Member 1 (she asked me only two questions, both of which were vague)
Member1: How will you contribute being a diplomat?
Me: Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I understand the question correctly. Do you mean how will I contribute being a diplomat given my training in economics?
Member1: Yes, yes.
Me: I think my grasp of energy, climate-change, international trade, and many other domains is enhanced by my education and experience in economics. I hope to be able to specialize in diplomatic representation relating to some of these areas.
Member1: Yes, but you will be getting a lot of calls as a diplomat, you will be very busy, so how will you contribute?
Me: (I wasn’t really sure what she meant, so I repeated a version of my earlier answer)
M2 -Member 2
Member2: I see that you work as an economist. What is the project that you’re currently involved with?
Me: Sir, I’m currently working on a research project with the Energy Department in Bihar that aims to increase the revenue collection rates of various Bihar discoms (I then explained the project in some detail, which I’m omitting here)
Member2: India has been losing a lot of money because of subsidies in the electricity sector. Don’t you think we should completely eliminate subsidies in this sector?
Me: I think there are political economy problems in eliminating subsidies in the electricity sector…
Member2: Yes, but don’t you think they should be eliminated?
Me: No, sir. I wouldn’t argue for complete removal of subsidies in this sector. As the recently released Economic Survey points out, the problem is energy accounting, which means we do not know who the subsidy is going to. We need better targeting- I think the Jyotirgram experiment in Gujarat, where agricultural and commercial feeders were separated, can be a good model to look into for scaling up in other states as well.
Member2: PTAs…do you think India should become a part of PTAs?
Me: Sir, TPP and TTIP are two mega-regional preferential trade agreements that are probably going to be implemented sometime in the near future, and both of them exclude India. There is some danger of us losing our existing export markets, and not being able to expand into newer markets if we don’t actively try and scout for them. Given that the world seems to be moving away from WTO-style negotiations, it is in our best interest to be a part of PTAs.
M3 – Member 3
Member3: Abhimanyu, you must have done defense-related readings?
Me: Yes Sir; I follow defense-related news covered in the media, but it’s not my area of expertise.
Member3: Okay, do you know what nuclear threshold is?
(I had a vague idea, that nuclear threshold might mean the minimum required purity of the radioactive ore required to make a nuclear reactor work, but I wasn’t sure. I said that I didn’t know)
Member3: Okay, nuclear threshold is the level of tolerance above which a country decides to use nuclear weapons on an enemy state. What events can you foresee that will cause India or Pakistan to cross their nuclear threshold?
Me: Sir, India has a No First Use Policy, so our nuclear threshold will only be crossed if and when Pakistan decides to launch a nuclear attack. For Pakistan, there are multiple scenarios: Pakistan suspects that India has a ‘Cold Start’ doctrine, which means in case of another Mumbai-style terror attack on Indian territory, India will launch an immediate and swift military attack on Pakistan and occupy a large part of its territory before the international community can intervene…
Member3: You said that Pakistan suspects that India has a cold start doctrine. Why do you think Pakistan suspects that India follows this doctrine?
Me: Sir, I’m not completely sure about this, but as far as I know, India has not publicly declared that it has a cold start doctrine. Pakistan has alleged in international forums that India does, but I don’t think we’ve publicly claimed that we do (I was wrong here; cold start is a stated doctrine of the GoI)
Member3: Okay, what are some of the other scenarios?
Me: Sir, in a traditional war, where both sides are fighting using traditional military means, if Pakistan reaches a point where it is sure to lose the war, and if the loss of war might mean losing significant territory to India, then they might use nuclear weapons.
Member3: What else?
Me: Sir, may I think for a minute?
(I couldn’t think of anything else)
Me: Sir, I can’t think of any other scenarios that might lead to a nuclear strike by Pakistan.
Member3: All right. Can you tell me whether in response the scenarios you outlined above, will Pakistan necessarily resort to full-fledged nuclear attack?
Me: No sir. Even if they launch a nuclear strike, they are more likely to use tactical nuclear weapons first.
Member3: What are these?
Me: Sir, these are short-range missiles loaded with nuclear warheads that are not enough to cause widespread destruction, but can be used to effectively wipe out a few villages and show serious intent of nuclear escalation.
Member3: Okay. Assume that you’re an administrator in a border district with Pakistan, and you get the news that there is going to be a nuclear attack soon. What will you do?
Me: Sir, firstly I will try and get information out as quickly as possible, and ask people of the area to start mobilizing and leave the area as soon as possible. If there are any nuclear-attack proof bunkers in the district, we can guide some people there. I will also coordinate with the NDRF to see if they can provide any assistance with evacuations…
Member3: As an administrator, you should always have a disaster management plan ready beforehand (he then went on a monologue about the importance of forward planning, and I nodded along)
Me: Yes, thank you, Sir.
Member3: Tourism. Do you think India is attracting tourists?
Me: Sir, we have great potential, but currently we are punching far below our weight. Several small Southeast Asian nations have higher tourist footfalls compared to India.
Me: Sir, the perception of India in international media is one of a country where infrastructure is below par; safety, especially of women, can not be guaranteed; also, we haven’t done enough in promoting specialized kinds of tourism, such as health tourism, eco tourism, and religious tourism. I currently work in Bihar, and there is a great potential in attracting Buddhists from all across the world, but the infrastructure is crumbling, perception of the state internationally is quite bad, and hence the number of tourists visiting each year is far below what it can be.
M4 – Member 4
Member4: Abhimanyu, you have studied economics, and worked in several countries as an economist. Did you never think about doing a Ph.D.?
Me: Sir, I enjoy research, and I have thought about doing a Ph.D., but I’m not sure about academia as a career. I enjoy research that is relevant for policy. Even being a diplomat, I would like to get a Ph.D. in something that is relevant for my career, such as in international trade. If I don’t make it, I am considering getting a Ph.D. and continuing in my current line of work. So, my decision to apply for the UPSC exam does not preclude me from doing a Ph.D. in the future.
Member4: What kind of reforms do you think the Indian higher education sector needs?
Me: I mentioned statistics related to higher education enrolment ratio being low; I suggested measures related to more autonomy, greater access, and better quality.
Member4: What do you think about distance education? Can we use technology to promote this?
Me: I started by talking about Massive Open Online Courses, and how they are useful. Overall thrust of my answer was that India isn’t ready for this yet because of infrastructural issues, and that we should focus on fixing traditional universities.
Final question by Chairman: Infrastructural issues aside, what do you prefer personally? Technology-led education, or conventional form of universities?
Me: Sir, I overwhelmingly prefer face-to-face teaching in conventional universities.
Me: Sir, apart from being places of learning, universities are also units of socialization. The kind of human skills one picks up at a university are very hard to pick up sitting in front of a computer.
Chairman: Thank you, Abhimanyu. That will be all.
My interviewing philosophy was to simply be honest and have a good conversation. This was facilitated by the board members as well, all of whom were very polite and engaging.