On the morning of 3 March 2017, when Amit Bhardwaj took the stage in a packed auditorium at Delhi’s Hyatt Regency hotel, the audience erupted in a thunderous roar. Rows of people leapt to their feet, chanting, “Amit, Amit, Amit!”
Bhardwaj had stood to deliver a short speech during the opening session of a conference that the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, or ASSOCHAM, had organised. The industry body had titled the conference “Bitcoin & Blockchain: The State of Cryptocurrency–Opportunities and Challenges for Indian Economy,” billing it as a “global summit” that would address the opportunities and challenges presented by bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Bhardwaj is the founder of a bitcoin-mining pool called GBMiners, which was also one of the conference’s main sponsors. According to the brochure of the conference, GBMiners would have paid Rs 5 lakh to be one of its “Blockchain partners.”
None of the other speakers at the summit got a reception anywhere close to Bhardwaj’s. Sandeep Goenka—an executive of Zebpay, one of India’s leading bitcoin exchanges, which also was a sponsor of the conference—seemed bemused as he took the podium after Bhardwaj. “All the applause has gone to the previous speaker,” Goenka noted. NS Nappinai, an advocate who spoke later that day about the legal questions raised by cryptocurrencies, included a slide in her PowerPoint presentation that showed Bhardwaj’s photograph next to a picture of Superman. “If you’re not going to clap for my lecture, at least clap for Amit Bhardwaj,” she quipped, drawing applause and hoots.
ASSOCHAM, founded in 1920, is one of India’s leading industry bodies. The organisation, which lobbies the government on behalf of corporate interests, has over 450,000 members—a category that includes representatives from industry, trade, law and consulting, among other fields. The current head of ASSOCHAM is Sandeep Jajodia, the chairman and managing director of Monnet Ispat and Energy, a manufacturing and coal-mining company. Former presidents include: RN Dhoot, a member of parliament and owner of the Videocon group; Rana Kapoor, the founder, managing director and CEO of Yes Bank; and Sajjan Jindal, the chairman and managing director of JSW Steel.
The industry body, it seemed, had orchestrated its summit on cryptocurrencies at a fortuitous moment. The price of bitcoin—the pioneering cryptocurrency created in 2009—had recently hit its all-time high. On 3 March, as the conference was underway, the cryptocurrency made international headlines because, for the first time ever, the price of one bitcoin, sitting at an average global rate of $1,290, had crossed that of an ounce of gold.