Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu priest tipped as successor to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has said hospitals lied about shortages of oxygen during the height of the Covid crisis, in an exclusive interview with the Telegraph.

Mr Adityanath, the chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, is seen as the third most powerful man in India behind his colleagues in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr Modi and home minister Amit Shah. 

The controversial politician attracts fervent support among many of India’s 966 million Hindus, who admire his Trump-like forthrightness on domestic issues – but, until now, Mr Adityanath had never spoken to the international media.

Critics say the man who once said Muslims should have stayed in Pakistan after partition has relied upon identity politics and stoked communal tensions throughout his career. 

He passed “Love Jihad” laws in Uttar Pradesh that activists say take aim at interfaith marriages and began construction of a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya, on the site of a former mosque, after a long legal battle.

Mr Adityanath told the Telegraph that despite repeated accusations from doctors and members of the public of oxygen shortages, opponents of Mr Modi and the BJP were behind the claims. 

“There were some people who played politics in this, and some people did not like what the Prime Minister was saying and were dissatisfied with the BJP government’s initiative,” said Mr Adityanath.

“Hospitals, including some in Uttar Pradesh, started putting boards outside that said they do not have oxygen and sent out magistrates there, we realised they have it in abundant quality,” he said.

“We also created an oxygen audit in Uttar Pradesh which had great results. Some people ran away from the oxygen audit. If you are being honest, then why would you run away from the oxygen audit?”

In a widely criticised ruling, Mr Adityanath’s government permitted police to file charges against individuals and hospitals reporting shortages of oxygen.

This followed residents of Uttar Pradesh launching desperate pleas for oxygen cylinders on social media for loved ones, while in late-April doctors in the state told the Telegraph that Mr Adityanath’s government was trying to “hide the truth”.

From modest beginnings, Mr Adityanath first entered politics as the parliamentary representative for Gorakhpur, a remote city near the Nepali border, and has since enjoyed a meteoric rise within the BJP.

During his interview, Mr Adityanath risked rebuke from China by suggesting that the coronavirus could be a biological weapon.

“We are facing this pandemic currently and there are different theories in the world about it. But its origin and where it came from should be a topic of inquiry for certain,” said Mr Adityanath.

“What is the reason behind it; is it a virus, or a biological war strategy against the world and mankind? This is a topic worth investigating. All the countries in the world and democratic people and leaders around the world must think about this.”

China has reacted with fury to President Joe Biden’s push for an investigation into whether the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. British spies have said the accusation is feasible.

The BJP has endured unprecedented criticism during India’s Covid-19 second wave with the country’s total death toll reaching 374,000, although epidemiologists believe the actual number could be five times as high.

India’s chronically underfunded healthcare system collapsed and citizens died in their homes and outside overwhelmed hospitals, desperately waiting for admission.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Mr Adityanath admitted the state “may not be an emblematic champion of prevention” but believed it had been singled out.

“To begin with, the second wave of Covid-19 was quite severe and for a little while, it overwhelmed the system. The extent of the severity of the mutant virus was also not known and I don’t think many of us were prepared to tackle that level of severity,” said Mr Adityanath.

“While the other states were fumbling around for a response to the second wave, we increased testing and imposed a partial curfew to ensure lives and livelihoods instead of a full lockdown. I myself have been travelling across the state and reviewing the on-ground situation,” he said.

The Chief Minister said countries with stronger healthcare infrastructures and much smaller populations than India had also struggled to contain Covid-19.

Uttar Pradesh would be better prepared to cope with any future waves of the virus, Mr Adityanath told the Telegraph, praising Mr Modi: “The active cases as of today are only 41,000. Prime Minister Modi’s guidance and leadership have helped to protect us from this disaster.”